Photograph by Brett Kallusky, Courtesy Matt Dooley
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A map of the Mississippi River and its tributaries from Minneapolis to St. Louis was made by igniting gunpowder.

Photograph by Brett Kallusky, Courtesy Matt Dooley

How to Map a River With Gunpowder

Cartographers experiment with an explosive way to make map art.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colorado—It’s the unpredictability that hooked cartographer Matt Dooley on the concept of making maps with gunpowder.

“It's impossible to control,” he says. “So it's an opportunity to let go, relax, and be open to surprises.”

After a decade as a professor at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, Dooley had fallen into a rut. “Plain-Jane, vanilla cartography” is how he describes his work at the time. And then one day, in a campus courtyard near his office, he saw some art students experimenting with gunpowder and paper, igniting their work.

“I was instantly mesmerized,” Dooley says. He had seen a documentary featuring gunpowder art by Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, but it hadn’t occurred to him to try it himself until that moment in the courtyard. “I thought, has anybody tried to make maps with gunpowder?”

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Gunpowder was used to map the rivers and lakes of the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

With help from UW professor and accomplished gunpowder artist Randy Johnston, Dooley learned the basics and began experimenting with making maps of rivers.

To make a gunpowder map, Dooley first makes a paper stencil of an existing river. Then he sandwiches the stencil between two sheets of paper and two pieces of plywood, with gunpowder on top of the stencil. With the sandwich weighed down by bricks, Dooley lights the fuse and stands back.

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A stencil after it was used to create the Twin Cities map above

When it ignites, the gunpowder marks the paper below the stencil to varying degrees depending on the amount of powder used and how much weight is on top. Too much gunpowder destroys the stencil and makes an indistinguishable, though sometimes interesting, mess on the paper. Just the right combination of gunpowder and weight can create a beautifully detailed pattern.

Dooley has improved his skills through trial and error, with just a few minor mishaps along the way. For example, he learned that it’s best to give yourself time to move away from the gunpowder by lighting it with a long fuse. This lesson came after Dooley tried lighting the powder with a blowtorch and lost a fair amount of facial hair.

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The moment of ignition doesn’t quite cause an explosion, but it looks explosive.

Dooley’s preferred subject is rivers, such as the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers in the image above of the Twin Cities area. One reason he likes mapping rivers, he says, is that too many reference maps of the U.S. are dominated by roads at the expense of natural systems. Now he’s drawing attention to those natural systems with a bang.

Actually, it’s more of a “phhhwoomp,” cartographer Nick Martinelli said during a presentation on gunpowder maps at the annual meeting of the North American Cartographic Information Society in Colorado Springs this October.

Martinelli learned how to make gunpowder maps at a workshop Dooley held last year. The participants collaborated to make a map of the Mississippi River from Minneapolis to St. Louis (at the top of the post), which drew a lot of attention while on display during the NACIS conference and is featured in the new Atlas of Design. Each tile of the map was made by a different participant, and you can see in the close-up below how the results differ in how controlled or wild each section appears. While the gunpowder is guided by the stencil, sometimes it escapes for an artistic effect beyond the river’s path.

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Close-up of two sections of the Mississippi River map at the top of the post

After the workshop, Martinelli continued making gunpowder maps at home, which involved ordering muzzle-loader gunpowder online (and earning “weird looks from his mailman for all the packages with hazardous-materials warnings on them). The key, Martinelli says, is to use the weight of something like bricks—he’s partial to paint cans and potted plants—to confine the gunpowder while not containing it so much as to cause an actual explosion. “Although it does look a little explosive,” he says.

The process of making the maps is what appeals to him most. “There are a lot of pieces to it,” he says. “The slow and methodical stencil cutting, solitary and meditative. Then, after all that care and precision, there is the moment of chaos, ignition, and creation, where so much control is given away.”

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A map of the Cascadia Fault Zone (right). The directionality of the gunpowder ignition represents the seismic destruction heading toward the Pacific Northwest during an earthquake. The paper on the left was above the stencil and gunpowder.

The photo above shows one of Martinelli’s maps of the Cascadia fault, where oceanic crust is being pushed below the continent in the Pacific Northwest. He was experimenting with controlling the directionality of the ignition to represent the potential destruction from the fault heading toward Washington and Oregon.

Dooley says that gunpowder mapping has changed how he approaches his professional cartography. Before, making maps had become boring and all he could see were limitations. “When I began my journey as an artist,” he says, “I suddenly saw all these new possibilities. I guess I found beginner’s mind again.”