New worlds

Through his beautifully intricate hand-drawn maps, Taiwan-based artist Tom Rook (Geography, 2010) offers a unique perspective on our urban environments.

In a special commission for the university, Tom brings our UK campuses to life and showcases Nottingham's commitment to sustainability, from state-of-the-art carbon neutral buildings to energy saving initiatives to extensive green spaces alive with biodiversity. 

New worlds

Can you talk us through the process of creating the campus spheres? What are some of the highlights?

“When we first spoke about the commission, one of the clear messages was that you wanted to highlight sustainability at Nottingham. I thought through how I could display that in an interesting manner and went with the sphere idea. Each one is its own little planet or ecosystem but they’re all interconnected in some way, which I thought would look cool.

“I spent a while looking at all of Nottingham’s sustainability initiatives and identifying which ones I could include in the drawing. Nottingham has a really wide range of activity, everything from large carbon neutral buildings to the hedgehog friendly campus. I thought that was such a cute idea, I had to find a way to include it! Some of the features were geographically linked, such as building locations, but other features I moved around, such as recycling, which happens on each campus.

“There are some quirky features too! One of the campaigns I discovered was a competition between the halls to see who could save the most electricity, and the winners got an end of year delivery of ice cream, so I put an ice cream truck near one of the halls. I don’t know who won the competition, but I made it Rutland because that’s where I was at Nottingham. I also added a character with a map on campus – see if you can find them!

Tom's highlights

Jubilee Campus

University Park Campus

  • Dr Bike – the university's Dr Bike mechanic gives cycles a thorough check and makes any repairs to ensure students and staff members can keep their bikes on the road.
  • Trees and wildlife habitat management – among the green spaces on University Park Campus are long grass wild areas to encourage biodiversity and different plan species from around the world to recognise the international nature of the university. Nottingham has won a Green Flag Award for University Park Campus every year since 2003.
  • Student Switch Off – this campaign encourages students living in halls to save energy and water, as well as recycle. The hall that saves the most energy receives an end of year delivery of ice cream!
  • Greenroofing on buildings – there are more than 10 green roofs on buildings at University Park and Jubilee Campuses. On University Park, green roofs can be found on the Orchard Hotel, Maths Building and George Green Library.
  • Cycle routes and tram connections – Nottingham has lots of safe cycle routes, and around 5,000 cycle parking spaces across our campuses. Public transport connections such as the tram network provide easy access and a sustainable way to get around the city.
  • Creative Energy Homes – the Creative Energy Homes development provides a living test site for firms including E.On and David Wilson homes to work with the university to investigate the integration of energy efficient technologies into houses.
  • Solar panels on halls – solar electricity is used and generated by buildings across our campuses, including Derby and Lincoln halls.

Sutton Bonington Campus

  • Hopper bus – the university's free hopper bus services provide connections between our campuses.
  • Recycling – taking place at scale across our campuses, some of the recycling initiatives at Nottingham include providing lots of recycling points across campuses and composting food waste from halls of residence and catering outlets.
  • Farmers market – the Sutton Bonington Farmers Market is a student-run market taking place each month, showcasing local producers and businesses.
  • Digital connections – new technologies mean it's easier than ever to connect across our campuses without the need to travel, from online meetings to digital resources.

You’re now an established artist in Taipei, when did you begin drawing and how did your journey take you from Nottingham to Taiwan?

“I’ve always enjoyed travelling. I did a gap year before university and in between my second and third year at Nottingham, I went to India for two months, and after coming back I realised I wanted to travel more and thought that teaching English would be the best way to do this.

“After I graduated, I saved up, took the Cambridge teaching certificate and flew straight out to Taiwan. I found that I really liked living here, and the longer I stayed the more I felt that I’d found a place that suited me. Years have now turned into almost a decade here.

“All that time, and even during my time at Nottingham, I was drawing, mainly focusing on cities. But I didn’t really do anything with them until I’d been living here for about three or four years and I finished drawing Taipei. A few of my friends saw me doing it and asked if they could have a poster when I was finished. I didn’t think it would ever lead to a career, but I made some prints for a few people, which was lucky, because when it went viral I was actually prepared.

“It went viral very suddenly, being shared across all of Taiwan. I had lots of messages from newspapers asking to interview me, which was a surprise. For a while I starting drawing alongside teaching but around that time I realised teaching wasn’t what I really wanted to be doing so I decided to pursue art and see what happened. Luckily because I enjoy doing it, I have the motivation to keep working on projects, I’ve normally got something planned as soon as I’ve finished a piece which keeps it exciting.”

What is your process for creating a piece? Do you follow the same method each time or does it vary depending on the commission?

“For the first few years, while I was still in the process of learning how to do some of this, I stuck fairly closely to a formula of what I wanted my style of cartography to be like. I also wanted to create a set of cities so that they looked linked, where the city was at the same scale, so I did a few cities in Taiwan all in the same style.

“In the last three years of so, I’ve wanted to try and make each one different and play around with different perspectives and subjects so maybe go right into neighbourhood level or pull right out and get the whole basin that the city is in. I think now I’m enjoying that a lot more, if you stick to formulas for too long you can eventually become bored of that.

“Recently, I’ve done some local level pieces, a big panoramic drawing, I did one that took parts of different streets and merge them together, there are the round ones like the Nottingham spheres, there are some which focus on different time periods. At the moment I’m working on a focused neighbourhood drawing, with lots of people and activity on it, its acting a bit like my diary of my time living in this neighbourhood.”

Is it important to you that your pieces tell a story?

“That’s very much the case. With some pieces, like my Insects series, the story about biodiversity is really important. For the Towers series, those were about trying to go back into Taiwan’s history and highlight the cool places that have survived from 100 years ago.

“With the large map drawings, I like that people can find their own stories in the piece, like where they lived, where they went to school, where they got married. It’s always cool when people message to tell me what they found looking at my drawings, especially people whose families have lived in old Tainan or Taipei, I learn a lot from them. It’s awesome that just by making a drawing of a place, it can draw people in enough to start sharing their stories.”

It’s fun watching a piece grow each day, as it starts to take shape as a neighbourhood or a city.
Tom Rook (Geography, 2010)

What do you find most enjoyable about creating your art?

“I have a few favourite parts! The first one is definitely exploring the place that I’m going to draw. When you visit a place to have a casual day out with friends or something, I’m never looking around as intently. When I go by myself and I have to concentrate and get reference photos, then I tend to notice a lot more and I go down the little alleyways and places that I wouldn’t normally go if I was just visiting. I’ve actually started guiding tours around some of the areas I’ve drawn because I’ve found so much in those areas that people don’t know if there so I want to introduce them to it!

“The measuring and technical set up is much less fun and something I just have to get through, but from there I really enjoy the drawing process too. It’s fun watching it grow each day, as it starts to take shape as a neighbourhood or a city. I enjoy showing new pieces, and seeing how people react to them, that’s always really cool. Commissions are always slightly more nerve-wracking than my own projects, but I like the challenge, especially if the people who’ve commissioned the piece let me try something new.”

How do you see your portfolio growing in future? What do you want to work on next?

“I think I’ll always do things that are linked in some way to Taiwan, but there’s definitely part of me that likes to take on a more global view. With my Insects series, I chose cities in different countries from different eras, my last one was Buenos Aires in the 1930s and the one before that was New York in 1910. During the lockdown restrictions, it was a fun way to travel virtually!

“I’ve got some ideas for some British drawings, I’d quite like to do one focused around Exeter, which is near where I’m from. But at the same time, I also feel that the body of my work will still be in Taiwan for the time being, there’s a lot more I want to do here.”

What advice would you give to someone who might be considering how they can pursue their passions?

“I was very fortunate with both bosses in my teaching jobs, they were flexible and understanding if I wanted to take some time to focus on my drawings. That was a massive boost to be able to pursue my passions on the side. So a piece of advice I would give is if you can, try to structure your employment so that it’s not completely dominating your life. It can work with a 9-5 job if you have time in the evenings and weekends, but you may burnout after a while.

“Another piece of advice I would give is to know that you’re going to be knocked back a few times. I was lucky because the first piece I put online went super viral, but that doesn’t happen with every piece. 2015 and 2018 were really low periods for me where nothing I was putting out really seemed to be connecting with people. It’s hard when it’s something you’re passionate about but people aren’t picking up on what you’re trying to do. With something like art, it can at times feel like a very personal rejection. But you learn from your experiences and are better prepared as a result. If you stick in there and persevere, everything will pick back up again. If you’re passionate about something, it’s more than worth it.”

View more of Tom's art:

Facebook: Tom Rook Art
Instagram: @tomrookart