Arts » Visual Arts

Map man: Indy is Kris Komakech's gallery


Kris Komakech with the NUVO city clock
  • Michelle Craig
  • Kris Komakech with the NUVO city clock

I'm obsessed with maps.

Prints of classic illustrations of European capital cities are tacked all over my walls. Pennants made of pages pulled from discarded atlases hang over my couch.

But my favorite map is in a frame. I found it one day inside the Illustrated Historical Atlas of The State of Indiana, published by Baskin Forester & Co. in 1876. The atlas was painstakingly laid out by Alfred T. Andreas and his band of surveyors throughout the 1870s; the result was a massive, 463-page tome.

At some point, a reprint by the Indiana Historical Society made its way to a display case inside a Bloomington bookstore, where I bought it for $11 off a bored employee working the nightshift. The entire atlas is beautiful, but the centerfold is something really special -- a Plan of Indianapolis, featuring neatly labeled farmlands, bisected by White River and Fall Creek and crisscrossed with railways. And squarely in the center, Monument Circle with roads spinning out like spokes on a wheel. It's elegant and orderly. But we know this -- we drive, bike and walk down these streets daily, the same roads Andreas & co. walked during the map's creation.

That plan of Indianapolis is hanging on my wall right now, in a tidy black frame. But another map is next to it now; it's something even better.


I'm not sure if my coworkers know about my map-session, but someone knew to put the black and white illustrated map of Indianapolis on my desk sometime last fall.

Plan of Indianapolis from the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Indiana: Katherine's previous favorite map
  • From the IUPUI University Library
  • Plan of Indianapolis from the Illustrated Historical Atlas of Indiana: Katherine's previous favorite map

It was incomplete, with the north and south of Marion County fleshed out more than the east and west. Drawn with pencil and traced over with pen, the map displayed Indianapolis the way it is now: dotted with hotels and restaurants, with Lucas Oil Stadium positioned just south and the Artsgarden gracefully crossing over Washington Street. But it's not just major landmarks: a jail, Steak and Shake, bars, swimming pools were sprinkled across the 22 x 28 inch print. And, if you look closely enough, there are people. Homeless people, bike riders, people sleeping in tents in Eagle Creek Park. There are NUVO boxes! Ken Nunn ads on buses. The Vogue, with the marquee all lit up; True Value hardware, with "Manager Mike G." inscribed in tiny script.

I pored over the fine print for the better part of that morning. Got nothing else done, made everyone look at it. Next to it, a name, email and request: Kris Komakech, "Add what should be in the Indy map." I sat down and typed out a message to him right away. Something like, "I LOVE your map, and I'd LOVE to meet you."

Kris responded that evening. He told me he would be spending Saturday and Sunday working at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, and that I could come by any time. We settled on a time and date in early January. But before that, I started seeing that map around. It was in Mo'Joe, pinned to the community news board, and at Silver in the City. Kris dropped them off at places around the city where people congregate, asking them to add what they think is important in Indianapolis, crowd-sourcing our collective view of the city. That's how notes like "Ask for bartender Annette" make their way onto the project, next to an Eastside bar.

I could barely contain my excitement the day I went to meet Kris. He was stationed inside the IMA cafe, tools spread out across his table -- a neon green highlighter, a collection of Crayola colored pencils, a few black pens -- which he crouched over, working on, yes, that map! The original radiated with color: the J. W. Marriott cast in a bright blue, yellow sailboats cruising Eagle Creek.

But there were other things spread across the table too. A huge, framed illustration, a few small, black and white sketches -- and something tiny and ticking.

Indy City Map by Kris Komakech
  • Kris Komakech
  • Indy City Map

And that's when we started talking about the clocks.


But I'll back up. Kris first came to the IMA four, maybe five years ago. Now, let me be clear: He doesn't work there, as in "employed." He creates there, hauling pens and paper to and from on a bus on days when he's not working at his full-time job as a woodworker at ProBuild (formerly Carter-Lee Lumber). He sits in the IMA cafe and draws.

He got to know the employees at the IMA slowly, taking meandering laps around the museum when he needed to stretch his legs. That's when he saw "Christ in Limbo,"a mysterious oil painting credited to a follower of Hieronymus Bosch; it's a vivid illustration of Hell that depicts Christ's descent to Limbo to rescue the righteous souls trapped there.

That first day, we talked about that piece. I've always been drawn to it, and so has Kris.
"['Christ in Limbo'] put me on this whole journey," said Kris.

He's over six feet tall, with huge hands that hover for a moment before he chooses a pen here, a pencil there.

He started working on an illustration inspired by the piece that he calls "Christ in Limbo 2: Race Crash Explosion." It depicts an Indy Car driver flung from his car in a fiery crash; he is frozen, in limbo -- surrounded by a variety of figures, the largest being the driver's wife, adopted child and the child's biological parents. It's high-contrast pop art, extremely detailed and reminiscent of the apocalyptic work of Robert Williams.

"Christ in Limbo 2: Race Crash Explosion" - KRIS KOMAKECH
  • Kris Komakech
  • "Christ in Limbo 2: Race Crash Explosion"

When Kris began the piece, all the figures were purely fictional.

"I didn't really talk to a lot of folks [when I was working on 'Christ in Limbo 2'], because I was basically dissecting my mind," he said.

But as he worked more at the IMA, and got to know the people there, something changed. He started adding IMA employees into the illustration, mostly in miniature. There's the chef from the cafe (now gone), shaking his fist at a tiny self-portrait of Kris inside, yelling "This is a cafe, not your studio!" Gallery guards, curators, even Contemporary Art chairwoman Lisa Freiman are fitted inside the small gaps in the illustration, which alternate groups subjects of human obsession (pornography, technology, religion) with popular Indianapolis figures, including Bobby Knight, Jim Irsay and Reggie Miller. The end product is a fiery conglomeration of fictional characters layered with mythologized real, local figures, an exploration of humanity localized to Indianapolis.

A cat clock template: Kris personalized and constructed over 130 total cat clocks. - KRIS KOMAKECH
  • Kris Komakech
  • A cat clock template: Kris personalized and constructed over 130 total cat clocks.


Sometime in the last year, Kris began work on the map that ended up on my desk. He was inspired by a mental game he's played since childhood.

"When I couldn't sleep, I'd take the J.C. Penny's catalogue, memorize all the stuff, build a home in my head," said Kris.

Now, at 34, he's moved on from catalogues.

"Now, I get into whole cities; take them apart, see what I can do," said Kris. "I do a 'Where's Waldo' in my mind with the whole city. It's like a game to me."

But he goes beyond landmarks and street names, and integrates the people and events he sees daily into his work. It's an exercise in illustrating cultural memory.

"To me, maps represent what's happening right now. We had the Super Bowl, we had the presidential election, we had this festival -- people will look at this (gesturing toward map) and see this is how we contributed."

It's not the only map he's made. He also created a miniature map of the IMA and its grounds, in the shape of a maneki-neko -- lucky cat -- which he personalized and handed out to over 130 people. That was what was ticking on the table that first day -- a cat clock just for me.

The finished product includes my favorite local band (Murder by Death), my co-workers, the tie-dyed NUVO Street Team jeep, all hidden inside the IMA map illustration. And right in the center, there's me. Long blonde hair, cowboy boots, sitting at a table across from Kris, interviewing him.

I sat at the IMA that day, looking at an illustration of myself sitting inside the IMA doing the exact same thing. Can you imagine?

Kris gave the bulk of the cat clocks away for Christmas last year -- most of them personalized for each person, to different employees, departments, and members of the IMA.


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