Christopher Alan Smith’s journey to becoming a prominent artist in Texas is a rather direct one. Born in 1971, decades before the rise of the internet and when families still climbed aboard their four-wheeled vessels for road trips, Smith fell in love with maps.
Seated in the backseat with the multi-fold map stretched from end-to-end, he would navigate the family toward the next town. Highways, bi-ways, and cross streets colored the paper landscape. Names of cities and towns typed in black, adjacent to black dots identifying their precise positions. It was the map that would ultimately serve as his compass toward his career.
The Smiths invested in the education of their family. At home there were maps, books, and scientific encyclopedias. On the road, those maps and books came to life.
When his “Grandpa Johnny” handed him an old four-color atlas book that artistically displayed each continent, Smith was transported to another world. A world that had, long before he was ever born, been traversed, surveyed, and sketched.
“It had all the continents with the animals for each continent. A real illustrated atlas. As a kid, I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing,’” Smith said. “It had historical maps on it. It showed movements of immigrants. The shifting of boundaries. I was a map geek and that broadened my fascination for maps.”
However impossible it was for him to know at the time, he would eventually make a career sketching his own artistic maps. The native Texan loves geography, topography, and history. The culmination of those three passions has resulted in the Smith Map Studio Hand Drawn Maps.
From a young age, Smith was a talented artist. He earned his bachelor of fine arts in visual communications from Texas State University in 1995. He began his career working as a graphic designer for a book publisher, but kept his mind set on creating something of his own: a work of art that combined both topography and history while at the same time reflected his personal history as a seventh generation Texan and the pride of his home state―the glories of the Texas Revolution.
His first work is an intricate piece that took him nearly two years to complete. Of course, the length of time was not due solely to mapping, drawing, and sharpening pencils. He had other priorities, like his job, a wife, and two young children. The artwork was the “Battlefield Texas: Republic of Texas” map. He completed the work in the fall of 2006. The work shows the Texas map as it was in 1835–36, along with marked battles, profiles of Mexican and Texian combatants, and numerous landmarks. It was a labor of love that brought with it a major stepping stone in his career and lessons on what not to do in order to have a career.
The map was completely hand drawn―an immensely exhausting and time-consuming effort. Smith had envisioned the work as a board game instead of a piece of art.
“It started out as a ‘Texas Risk’,” he said, referencing the classic strategic board game. “Then I figured it was going to be too costly to make it as a game, so I decided to make it into a map. My style back then was a little more detailed. More factoids, captions, illustrations. It also took twice as long.”
He continued working on other cartographical pieces. In 2008, at the Bayou City Arts Festival in Houston, he was accepted into his first art exhibition. By this time, he only had about three or four maps from his Texas series (original and giclée). But by the end of the two-day art show, he had sold $5,500 worth of art. The timing could hardly have been better with the recession in full swing.
“I started doing more and more shows after that. It was an eye-opener,” he said. “It kind of worked out nicely because I got laid off in the fall of 2009. That kind of forced me into full time.”
He and his wife worked to book shows and began exhibiting around 15 to 20 shows a year and were able to make a living. He said his wife really helps with the sales because he hates talking about himself or complimenting his own work. He noted that the sales always do better when she attends the art exhibits.
Over the years he has learned to streamline the process of creating map art. He has moved away from strictly hand-drawn art to utilizing his graphic design expertise in Photoshop and Illustrator. His evolved process has allowed him to create more pieces that range from historical military (like the American Revolution and the Civil War) to journey maps (like De Soto’s Exploration and Route 66) to bird’s eye perspectives of landmarks and cityscapes (like the French Quarter and Austin).
“It’s funny how you evolve from your first pieces,” he said. “As an artist, I have to change it up or I’m going lose my sanity. I’m constantly trying to push for new ideas and designs and layouts.”
After 14 years of creating, he’s learned how to judge what sells and what doesn’t, and how to update his art while retaining his traditional/contemporary blend that naturally flows from cartography. Some of his later work could be considered popular art, often focused on the buyer rather than the art itself. He worries, though, if he is doing right by himself.
“I did a Kyle Field map of Texas A&M, so I feel like I’m selling out a little bit,” he said with a laugh. “But that one did really well. It’s not so much historical as it is a designed map. You see other artists moving toward less traditional and more contemporary. It’s sort of this game of trying to fit in while not selling your soul and staying true to yourself.”
Smith said he feels like his latest work has been moving away from the historical aspect. For buyers, they may not be receiving any cartography of historical narrative, but they are purchasing a work of personal history, like when Aggies purchase the Kyle Field map.
The Texas artist said it’s been interesting to watch his evolution as an artist. His pieces have become a timeline, or, perhaps more fittingly, a map of his career. Near the midpoint of his career in 2016, he began work on a 45-inch drawing of an atlas map.
During the creative process, a buyer approached him about it and requested to purchase the original. It was, in a sense, a commissioned piece. The final product was a landscape format of layered Masonite wood with the double hemispheres cut out. The art was based off of a Dutch cartographer’s atlas from 1689. Smith’s design incorporated Latin script at the top and iconographic symbols branched out along the oceans. The buyer purchased the original artwork for $4,000 with an agreement that Smith could sell prints.
It was a moment that, whether he recognized it or not, had brought his career full circle. But whether it’s an atlas, a map of the American Revolution, the layout of Kyle Field, or a roadmap highlighting the best BBQ places in Texas, the fact is that history will always play a role in Smith’s cartographic art. If one traces back through his artistic timeline, it’s history that put Smith on the map.