Mapmaker Leaves Winning Team at the Helm

By Stuart Steidle

February 24, 2021

One of Oregon's foremost mapmakers, James "Jim" Meacham, will retire in July 2021 from his role as executive director of the University of Oregon Geography Department's InfoGraphics Lab, which he’s helped elevate to critical acclaim for 33 years. 

Meacham’s mentorship, teamwork, and ever-evolving commitment to craft inspired countless students to explore the world through data design and spatial storytelling. Alumni have built careers at National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, National Park Service, Apple, U.S. Census Bureau and beyond.

“He’s helped the lab and the department become recognized as a place of excellent cartography because of his leadership and his work,” InfoGraphics Lab Production Manager Alethea Steingisser said. Steingisser assisted Meacham on three of the five major atlases of his career, all of which enjoy national renown from multiple wildlife, geographic, and publishing associations.

Major atlases from Jim Meacham’s career are spread across a table in the InfoGraphics Lab at University of Oregon, representing decades of cartographic work and collaboration across diverse subjects. Meacham and colleagues are currently working on the second edition of the Atlas of Yellowstone. Photo: Stuart Steidle

“At this point I suppose he’s the preeminent atlas maker in the country,” said Stuart Allan, longtime friend and collaborator. “He’s done this four or five times and almost nobody else has that kind of experience, if anyone.”

Finding his way into the map

Meacham’s career compass didn’t initially point toward geography. After high school he managed a restaurant and took night classes in business and accounting at Lane Community College.

That path seemed to follow the contours set by his parents, Loren who sold insurance, and Ruth, who worked in the food industry. Meacham, though he enjoyed business, relished the outdoors – which he first came to know through Boy Scouts – by backpacking and later snow-camping whenever opportunities arose.

His trail forked suddenly in 1979 when his best friend Peter Albrecht died of Leukemia. 

"That was a moment of realizing you're not going to live forever, and you've really got to pursue your dreams," Meacham explained. Meacham’s vision of that pursuit crystallized a few weeks after Albrecht’s death, when he and friends made a commemorative ski trip around Crater Lake. He decided to return to school that fall. 

“I got into geography and never looked back,” he said. 

Meacham valued geography’s expansive yet intimate synthesis of understanding both natural and built environments. His plans shifted from becoming an environmental planner to a physical geographer over the two years he attended Lane Community College and a junior year in the Rockies at University of Montana. 

His plans took a new direction upon meeting acclaimed Oregon mapmaker William “Bill” Loy when he enrolled as a senior at University of Oregon.

Three of Loy’s classes reawakened Meacham’s dormant artistic interests, and he course-corrected toward cartography, receiving his Bachelor’s of Science in Geography with honors in 1984. 

That summer saw him back in the elements, working as an assistant surveyor lugging huge, cumbersome lasers to measure landscapes of remote Eastern Oregon with the Bureau of Land Management. “It was a little bit like a bootcamp,” he chuckled. 

Is Cartography Dead?

The dust of eastern Oregon had barely settled before Meacham started learning brand-new Computer Aided Design (CAD) technology for his work with Oregon State Parks and Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) from 1985-1988. 

“Those were exciting times,” Meacham recounted as he shared how the mapmaker’s toolkit quickly morphed from pencil, paper, and drafting table to digital software and computer-based Geographical Information Systems (GIS). His maps of Columbia County and Beverly Beach State Park were some of Oregon’s very first state-issue maps to utilize CAD.

Back at UO, Meacham’s mentor, Loy, kept steady tabs on the budding technology that would eventually revolutionize mapmaking. He soon sought Meacham’s assistance in digitizing the map lab on campus. 

“Bill saw computers as the key to the future of mapping, and he was right,” Allan explained by phone. Allan assisted Loy on the first Atlas of Oregon, published in 1976, and would later work alongside Meacham on the second edition for three years, calling him an “ideal collaborator.”

In 1988 Meacham took a leave of absence from ODOT to help Loy in Eugene. That fall he decided to enroll in the university’s Geography Master’s program, giving up a rare job as a state cartographer.

Loy and Meacham pioneered the campus’ digital mapping efforts, and supported research of numerous faculty members while still working with state agencies. “Building capacity to make a second edition Atlas of Oregon, that was the overriding goal,” Meacham explained, sitting in the InfoGraphics Lab at a table splayed with maps, outdoor magazines, and atlases, many annotated with sticky notes.

Meacham holds an archival photo of himself working with his mentor Bill Loy in what would become the InfoGraphics Lab, which they started together in 1988. Maps and press publications featuring InfoGraphics Lab work cover the counter and wall behind Meacham, including two of his many career awards Photo: Stuart Steidle.

Meacham at the McKenzie Map Gallery at Oregon Country Fair in 2014. “Jim and I (and Peter Eberhardt) camped out at Oregon Country Fair selling maps and enjoying the scene for years,” Allan said, explaining that Jim attended Fair frequently since 1999 “peddling maps.” Photo: courtesy of Peter Eberhardt.

Meacham’s master’s thesis detailed an original workflow for converting analog data to digital. “We used to put ‘computer generated’ on our ODOT maps as a source of pride, which is really weird to think about now,” he said. 

Though GIS shaped the future of mapmaking, Meacham said that in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s it “became too much of the driving force, so the design and the aesthetic were actually lost for a while.” 

He recalled a plenary session of the American Association of Geographers titled, “Is Cartography Dead?” 

Over 20 years later the answer is a firm, ‘No,’ according to alumni who stay in contact with Meacham, Steingisser, and InfoGraphics Lab Research Assistant Joanna Merson.

Washington Post Graphics Editor and former National Geographic Cartographer Lauren Tierney, plotted her first career point at the InfoGraphics Lab. “Jim was always really good at giving you the skills to get you going,” she said by phone, one week before her planned guest-lecture for Meacham’s Advanced Cartography course. 

“He also connected students with what’s possible in this area by inviting alumni to visit,” she added.

Geographic Vision

In the field Meacham blueprints visual drafts first-hand with topical experts to highlight the key stories of their science, molding the product through countless drafts. He is skilled at maintaining the data’s complexity in compelling ways for general readership, according to Tierney, Steingisser, and Allan.

In 1997 he inspired one domain expert – UO Professor Emerita of Asian Art Dr. Esther Jacobson-Tepfer – to take a step back from data she hardly recognized herself. 

Dr. Jacobson-Tepfer fondly described the career-changing conversation when Meacham first accompanied her to her study site in the unforgiving terrain of Mongolia’s Altai Mountains. They were standing in a 20-km long valley, holding some of the first civilian-issue GPS units, and surrounded by stone monuments thousands of years old:

“Jim asked me a very innocent question, ‘What if we mapped all the images of bulls in this complex?’” She laughed at the memory. “‘Oh, Jim, there’d be no end to it!’” 

But she soon realized mapping could reveal spatial patterns in the petroglyphs’ artistic style, time period, and elevation. A template was born, providing unprecedented leads for future projects.

“His innocent question which made me laugh turned out to be very, very productive,” she said. 

Fifteen years of collaboration culminated in an award-winning atlas with an interactive website, and Dr. Jacobson-Tepfer said the material keeps her writing far into retirement.

“I think we both taught each other to think in different ways,” she said. 

Managing, and exceeding, expectations

Dr. Jacobson-Tepfer considered the InfoGraphics Lab “a marvelous testimony to Jim’s ability to bring in excellent people and to have them work together so harmoniously and so productively.”

Allan, Steingisser, and Tierney all agreed that Meacham cultivated a comfortable space for creativity and teamwork – fruits borne of Meacham’s beginnings in business management.

As a team leader Meacham also loves mentoring students. “He always makes time for people, always,” Steingisser said. 

“I’ve always seen that the InfoGraphics Lab is grounded in the three main missions of the university: instruction, public service, and research,” Meacham said.

An infographic chart charting the history of the InfoGraphics Lab, which Meacham helped run and eventually lead. Eighteen awards and distinction in various design and publication categories line the bottom. The chart doesn’t include three more honors given to Wild Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates, nor three more personal awards Meacham has received through professional service and research over the years, according to his curriculum vitae. Source: InfoGraphics Lab.

“I think cartography is such a great way to convey different aspects of geographic research and issues with climate and social or racial justice – it can play a really big role in communicating and making a difference,” he said.

“We’ve constantly been changing, and I tried to facilitate that. I want the lab to succeed because I think it does great work.” He ended with a laugh, “But I don’t want to get in the way either.”