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Professor making his mark with a bang

Matt Dooley shows some details of a gunpowder map during a demonstration.1 / 4
Matt Dooley2 / 4
UW-River Falls Prof. Matt Dooley likes to make maps using gunpowder. This explosive technique creates something that's part artwork, part-map. Shown, one of Dooley's maps at the moment the gunpowder is ignited. (Submited photos)3 / 4
This map of the Mississippi (35x54x2") was a group project from the North American Cartographic Information Society (NACIS) Gunpowder Mapping Workshop, October 2015.4 / 4

UW-River Falls Professor Matt Dooley discovered his love of mapping while doing fieldwork in archeology and anthropology.

"We were mapping archaeological sites," he said. "It was just my favorite part of the job."

That was how he got into mapping.

But his mapping path took an explosive new turn in 2014 when he saw an art class doing gunpowder drawing in the kiln yard.

That was how Dooley discovered a new way to make maps — with a bang.

Dooley's fellow UWRF professor, Randy Johnston, helped him get his start using gunpowder drawing to create maps.

"It's a nice combinations between mapping and art," Dooley said. "The process is exciting, and I like how the results turn out."

Dooley likes to map rivers. He starts by creating a paper stencil of the river he wants to map.

Once that's ready, he creates a "sandwich" of layers. The bottom layer is a piece of plywood, the middle is a piece of paper that becomes the map, and the stencil gets placed on top.

Dooley then fills in the stencil with gunpowder. On top of that goes another piece of paper and plywood.

Dooley uses a safety fuse to ignite the gunpowder.

After that, Dooley said, he uncovers his drawing quickly, makes sure it's not on fire, and checks the results, which are unpredictable.

Dooley, also a potter, said he enjoys the chaotic and random aspect of gunpowder mapping.

Dooley said it was the excitement that drew him in, as well as the unpredictability of the results.

"Sometimes it burns really tightly with the stencil, and then sometimes the gunpowder flies underneath the stencil, does these weird blowouts," Dooley said. "It gives an interesting effect, something you can't get with a printer.

Dooley often works on his stencils in the studio in his St. Croix Valley home. He said he'll make stencils over the winter, and then light them in warmer months.

He hasn't created a gunpowder map since late summer, but Dooley said come spring, he's hoping to start work on a very large scale map.

His last completed map was about 52-by-36 inches. He said he'd like to do one triple that size.

Dooley said since he started in summer 2014, he usually makes at least a couple of "good ones" per year, and maybe two or three smaller maps.

"They serve just as kind of pieces of art, or just standalone maps," Dooley said. "I think I want to stick with rivers for now ... but I'm kinda just playing it by ear."

Some of the maps have been sold, others Dooley has kept. He's shown some at a conference. His unique mapping work was also recently featured in an issue of National Geographic.

Of course, though the excitement of creating maps with gunpowder is what drew Dooley in, he also takes many safety precautions.

He stores his gunpowder — which he buys at Fleet Farm — outside of his house in a fireproof container.

He also stays a safe distance from his maps when igniting the gunpowder, and he puts the extra gunpowder away before ignition.

And though he keeps flammable objects away from maps that are about to be ignited, he also keeps a fire extinguisher on hand, just in case.

Dooley teachers mapping classes at UWRF, including intermediate and advanced map design, mapping and spatial justice, and geographic information science (GIS) at UWRF.

He said his students ask him about gunpowder mapping all the time.

"They really want me to teach them how to do it," Dooley said. "So I think probably in spring we'll do it."

Gretta Stark

Gretta Stark has been a reporter for the River Falls Journal since July of 2013. She previously worked as a reporter for the New Richmond News from June 2012 to July 2013. She holds a BA in Print and Electronic Media from Wartburg College.

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