GP Bier

Retired UI Geography Department staff cartographer James Bier poses for a photo Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019, in the Japanese garden at his home in Champaign.

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Each week, we offer a Q&A with a local personality. Today, James Bier of Champaign, the latest winner of the Illinois Arts Legacy Award, chats with staff writer Paul Wood. Bier retired from teaching cartography in the Geography Department at the University of Illinois in 1989. He’s had a long relationship with Japan House, whose gardens he designed, donated, and constructed and continues to maintain.

Where are you from and how did you get here?

I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1927. I received my bachelor’s degree in geology at Western Reserve University. I came here to receive my master’s degree in cartography/geography. Upon graduation, I was hired by the department as staff cartographer and later for teaching.

You were drafted immediately after getting your geology degree and stationed in Tokyo. Did that lead to your lifelong interest in Japanese gardens?

I became interested in Japanese culture and arts, wanting something of what I saw in Japan as part of my life in Champaign. My house was designed by Professor John Replinger as half-American and half-Japanese. The 0.6 acres of land became two Japanese-style gardens, which have been visited by thousands of persons over the years.

What made you interested in cartography?

I started college as a music major but quickly changed to geology and later discovered cartography in my junior year. I was very skillful in drafting, having specialized in mechanical drafting in high school. This allowed me to focus my full attention to other aspects of cartography.

Of your nearly 3,000 maps and atlases, do you have a favorite?

I strongly feel that quality art and design are as important as the map content (often overlooked by others). My favorite map may be of the Islands of Samoa, where I used three colors — black, red and a warm tan — to resemble the designs on tapa cloth used by Samoans.

Tell us about being a designer and cartographer for the atlas of Hawaii and the reference maps of the islands of Hawaii published by the University of Hawaii Press.

The atlas was an ideal project, living in Hawaii for a year and having complete control in the design and production. The atlas was highly successful, which allowed me to follow with the five reference maps of the six main islands. Again, these have been greatly successful with nine editions, the dominant maps sold in the islands for over 30 years. They are the only maps available to the public that include Hawaiian accents for all place names, allowing for correct pronunciation and meaning. I always felt that field work, to see, is always important in mapping where possible.

You have master’s degree in cartography/geography from the UI, and you’ve stayed here since 1957. What do you like about the area?

Having come from the “big city,” I find C-U more calming, being employed by the university for 32 years, plus not being far from all parts of the world.

Since the creation in 1998 of a permanent home for Japan House, you directed the design and plan of the ponds and created the traditional tea garden and the dry, or karesansui, garden. What was that experience like?

For me, Japanese garden design is a hobby, but a serious one, beginning at my home. I have traveled to Japan seven times, mainly studying gardens at all parts of the country. This knowledge and experience at home led to the ability to build the gardens at Japan House. I have wanted to make the gardens as accurate as possible within the money available. I have a design for a third garden, a walking or stroll garden around the nearby pond. All that is needed is a donor — waiting 20 years. My wife, Lorene, and I have funded the present gardens from the beginning to the present time.

How many hours a week do you volunteer at Japan House now? Since retirement, have you tried different tasks there?

With nine fabulous volunteers, we maintain the gardens a half-day on Mondays and Fridays. Any garden is a living, breathing, eating, sleeping entity that always needs attention. As it grows, it changes, and sometimes the design must change with it. Japanese gardens call for perfection, and we try hard to meet that goal.

What would you order for your last meal?

Foods of the world are one of life’s great pleasures, and I have no barriers in taste. I would want seafoods of all kinds from sea urchins and sea cucumbers on up to the surface, lots of vegetables, and finishing off with a rich, brothy bowl of saimin. No dessert.

If you could be reincarnated after you die, what would you like to come back as?

As myself, only younger! It has been an adventurous, exciting life for me. Looking back, it was quite remarkable with a highly satisfying career, and I would not want anything else.

What’s your best piece of advice?

For a career, find what you really like to do and work hard to make it happen. Then, the career becomes a hobby, never work.

What was your first job and how much did you make an hour?

I was 8 years old, in the middle of the Depression, using my red wagon to deliver groceries for a small neighborhood grocer. I was paid 5 cents a delivery with tips of a penny or two. The most I ever made in a day was $1.25, which I always gave to my mother. Good exercise.

What was a pivotal decision in your career and how did you arrive at that decision?

When I realized I was not good enough on the piano at university level and headed for a career where I could make a living.

Do you have any regrets in your life? What are they?

Many, but that is in the past and not dwelled upon.

How do you handle a stressful situation?

With a heart problem, stress is an absolute no-no. I go in another direction.



Paul Wood is a reporter at The News-Gazette. His email is, and you can follow him on Twitter (@pvawood).