Student Voice


April 25, 2024



UWRF professor receives national attention for unique mapmaking technique

December 14, 2016

A UW-River Falls professor received national attention last month when his work creating and teaching others how to create gunpowder maps was featured in National Geographic.

Assistant professor Matt Dooley began experimenting with the process of creating these unique maps two years ago, after he witnessed a group of UWRF art students doing gunpowder projects of their own. He decided to combine his own specialties in cartography, GIS (Geographic Information Systems) and field mapping with this peculiar brand of art, and turned to former UWRF art professor Randy Johnston to teach him how to go about making these maps.

“I had some good initial results in 2014 when I began,” Dooley said. The basic procedure involved first making a paper stencil of the map he desired, with the spots he wanted dark cut out so that the gunpowder could make a mark through it. He would then sandwich the stencil between two more pieces of paper, with the gunpowder measured into the stencil holes. All of this was further sandwiched between two pieces of plywood and weighted down by something heavy. Dooley then lit the fuse for the gunpowder and stepped back about 25 feet.

“I experimented by changing different variables, like the amount of gunpowder, different papers for stencils and prints, using adhesive on the stencil, or not, and finally pre-printing on the burned paper using my inkjet printer,” said Dooley.

The end results are a combination of intricate detail and spontaneous lack of control. The gunpowder leaves burnt, brown explosion patterns on the surface of the paper, usually tracing out the length of a river, Dooley’s subject of choice.

Dooley’s work was featured by National Geographic blogger Betsy Mason in “All Over the Map,” a cartography-oriented blog series that collects unique stories related to maps or mapmaking. The article is titled, “How to Map a River With Gunpowder,” and it goes into great detail on the process of gunpowder mapmaking. It also makes mention of the workshop Dooley held in October 2015 at UWRF, which was done in association with the National American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS).

The workshop attracted 12 people from all across the country, some from as far as Pennsylvania State University and Silicon Valley in California. Most were either professional cartographers or closely involved in the field in some way, and they all came with the intention of learning Dooley’s unique form of mapmaking.

David Bergs is a current student at the University of Minnesota and a UWRF geography and chemistry graduate who was doing an independent study with Dooley at the time. He ended up being one of four student assistants who helped run the workshop.

“Everyone seemed to enjoy it,” Bergs said. “These were a lot of people who work with maps for a living…[and] everyone could go at their own pace.”

Bergs and the other students helped Dooley ensure that the entire workshop ran smoothly. They figured out what materials were needed for the event, cut out map stencils, offered help when needed, and Bergs even created a demo map so that the workshop attendees could see how the process worked.

“It didn’t turn out the best because some of the gunpowder got under the stencil,” Bergs said, “[but] some of the fun is having those quirks and oddities that create interesting patterns, even if they obstruct some of the details.”

The workshop attendees were given the collective task of creating a map of the Mississippi River. Each person chose a section of the river somewhere between Minneapolis and St. Louis, and were given a pre-made stencil of that section. Each person then went through the process of layering and igniting their piece, and then putting their individual maps together to create the larger picture. This collaborative map was featured at the top of Mason’s article.

“I'm happy that so many people will see the map,” said Dooley. “Betsy Mason asked me really good questions that helped me think about my work in new and exciting ways. And of course, it's an incredible honor to be featured on the blog.”