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Welcome to his planet

Some retirees golf; some paint. Gregory Dietz makes maps. You, and his wife, could call it an overwhelming passion.

By AMY WIMMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 22, 2000


TREASURE ISLAND -- Gregory Dietz already has fit the world into his 580-square-foot apartment. Now he's trying to squeeze in an extra United States.

Dietz, 69, is a self-trained topographic mapmaker. Some would call him an artist.

He has done 60 or 70 of them, many as large as billiards tables, depicting everything from the Philippine islands to the European continent to Pearl Harbor.

His current project is his most daunting yet, the creme de la creme of his topographic map portfolio. The 17-by-12-foot monstrosity is a sculpted-to-scale map of the United States.

If everything goes as planned, the map will be donated to the city of Treasure Island and possibly displayed in a new city park pavilion. But before that happens, Dietz must find a garage or warehouse where the map can be assembled. It's bigger than his living room and probably twice the size of his bedroom.

"I'm to the point where I can't do much more because I'm out of room," Dietz said. "These apartments are awful small."

The city of Treasure Island isn't sure it has space either. Mayor Leon Atkinson said he has talked to Dietz, but Treasure Island might only be able to exhibit the map temporarily.

"I don't think the city's going to have a permanent home for it," Atkinson said. "We don't have the space for it right now. When we see it, maybe anything's possible."

Unlike other artisans with unusual crafts who hope to make a buck from their handmade products, Dietz is looking for a home for his. He wants to give his map of Greece to a local Greek restaurant, and the one of the United Kingdom to a British pub.

Most of all, he wants to give some of the maps to local schools, which perhaps could use a map of North America, or a detailed map of the Civil War that highlights battle sites.

His wife, Nita, is beginning to insist. His hobby has taken over the household.

"I've got to get these out of here because she's going crazy," Dietz said.

Bermuda hangs over the couch in the living room. A hallway wall is lined with Colorado and a map of the Nile River that points out the pyramids. The South Pacific hangs in the bedroom. Squeezed between a dresser and a work table are California, Louisiana, Hawaii and British Columbia, among others.

Other maps are tucked into every cranny in the apartment. He also owns the apartment next door, which he rents to a tenant who allows him to keep eight more large maps in a closet.

He is sculpting the huge United States map in pieces, measuring the snow-capped mountains of Washington state on a work table 2 feet from his bed. He makes mountains, valleys, lush fields and dry deserts out of wood filler, glue, sand and paint.

In his newest project, the colors change from rusty orange to chocolate brown to forest green as his map moves from the dusty West to the Midwest flatlands. The natural colors of the map are occasionally interrupted by a yellow dot, signifying a major U.S. city.

The particularly steep mountain ranges are embellished with wads of newspaper. Dietz soaks them in water, sculpts them into Mount Whitney or Mount McKinley, and bakes them in the oven to hold their shape. The hardened paper is covered with his wood filler mixture. The map has a plywood base.

He tries to be as accurate as possible, measuring and marking geographic points on a grid he designed for himself. The measurements are tedious, especially with Dietz's failing eyesight. He suffers from glaucoma and has undergone four or five eye surgeries.

But when people look at his maps, the first thing they do is search for an area they are familiar with. If a river is too wide or a state line too curvy, they notice.

"It has to be pretty accurate because they criticize," Dietz said. "They say, "That's not right. That bay doesn't go in that far.' "

He believes his love of mapmaking comes from the experiences he enjoyed while traveling the world. He has lived in Bermuda, Germany and the Philippines while working as an aircraft mechanic for the U.S. Air Force and several private companies.

He made his first map when he was in the Philippines. The map was of the islands there, and he left it behind with Filipino friends.

"I was a little bored over there, there wasn't a whole lot to do, and I was always interested in maps, so I decided to make one," Dietz said.

That was over 10 years ago. Since then, he has spent hours of his retirement doting over the slopes and valleys of nearly every country in the world.

The latest map -- his masterpiece -- is about 75 percent done, but he can't do much more. Dietz has worked on it since October, an estimated 700 hours.

Now he's simply out of room.

How to help

If you would like to volunteer space where Gregory Dietz can assemble the final pieces of the map he plans to donate to Treasure Island, call him at 367-4120.

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