Globetrotting Artist Illustrates Old-World Style Maps, Partners to Build Montana Business

by Shannon Furniss

While sketching the migrating wildebeests and zebras from the rooftop of his SUV in southwestern Kenya, Chris Robitaille never dreamed he would someday be drawing the roaming grizzly bears in northwestern Montana. He also never thought he would be the co-founder of Xplorer Maps, a company headquartered in Missoula, Montana, that creates hand-illustrated maps of national parks and travel destinations throughout the world.

A graduate of the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, Chris traveled to Kenya in the early 90s on vacation. He was so inspired by the vibrant international art community in Nairobi and the massive wildlife corridor that spans from the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania to the Masai Mara National Reserve in Kenya, that he sold his car and his house and decided to move there.

Passionate about painting wildlife and landscapes, Chris also was fascinated by maps and began dabbling in creating old-world, antique-style maps of Africa. When his brother, Greg, an entrepreneur, history buff, and graduate of the University of Montana, saw the unique, hand-illustrated maps that were modeled after those of early cartographers, he had an idea. They could create maps that would tell the story of special places around the world and connect people to place.

Chris Robitaille

In 2010, the globetrotting artist (who has lived in Kenya, China, the Middle East, and now in Thailand) and the Montana entrepreneur came up with a plan to start Xplorer Maps. The first project was the state map of Montana where Greg lived and Chris visited often, staying with his brother at his Rattlesnake Valley home in Missoula.

“Big Sky Country has a sort of mystique, with two of the most popular national parks – Glacier and Yellowstone – and some amazing wildlife,” Chris said. We worked hard to capture the spirit of the landscape, the culture, and the history of Montana. We wanted to provide people with a unique piece of art that would be meaningful and memorable.”

The brothers were overwhelmed by the enthusiastic reaction of their customers. “We couldn’t keep the Montana map on the shelves in gift shops,” Greg said. “People were really drawn to the originality of the artwork and connected with the iconic images on the map that reminded them of their visits and experiences in Montana.”

With the success of the Montana map, the idea became a reality, and the brothers launched the business. Xplorer Maps, a Made-in-Montana company, now has products in 16 U.S. states, two Canadian provinces, and the United Kingdom. Online orders have shipped to all 50 states, and the company will have their products sold in seven more states in 2018.

The Artistic Process: Pencils and Paintbrushes Over Computer Software

Chris’s artistic style is heavily influenced by his training at the Ontario College of Art, one of the most prestigious art schools in Canada, and by his years of work as an illustrator. In a time when digital technology is transforming the art world, Chris jokes that he is barely computer literate and much prefers paying homage to the early cartographers using his old-world style.

“My art supplies consist of pencils, technical pens, watercolor brushes, and water color paints,” Chris said. “I don’t get near a computer until the artwork is ready to go to the printer. My style is low-tech and old-school.”

His style works well for Xplorer Maps, according to Greg. “Most map art today is simply public domain stock art with a logo or a small piece of custom art overlaid using a computer software program. Xplorer Maps is different. Every single line, letter, and illustration has been intricately detailed by Chris and is truly a one-of-a-kind piece of art. Each new map we render is entirely custom and original,”

Making a map is an in-depth, collaborative process that is put in motion about a year in advance of the map being released for sale. Xplorer Maps works with public land agencies, area experts, historians, National Park Service interpretive staff, and other partners to research natural, cultural, and historical landmarks and determine the content and layout of the map. After this phase has been completed, and depending on the depth of detail in the map being rendered, the actual drawing process takes an additional five to eight weeks.

“The process is labor-intensive,” Chris said. “I have to be completely methodical. I start with a layout and move images around. Sometimes I find out that a particular kind of trout isn’t found in the area I have it on the map, so I have to move it to the right area. Once everything is where it should be, I get to drawing. I then provide two or three sketches to our partners to review. It’s really an organic process.”

The end result is an entirely custom, unique, and original piece of art that has been fully vetted and approved for sale in the national park visitor centers, Greg said, adding that there are no other custom maps in the country that undergo this exhaustive and complete review.

The Artistic Journey: From Art School to the International Arts Community

Growing up in Toronto, Chris was always artistically inclined. In fifth grade, his drawing of an eagle won a school competition. During his teenage years, he illustrated an album cover featuring an artsy, fantasy landscape. The album cover was popular with local musicians, and Chris went on to design a few more. In 1981, he enrolled at the Ontario College of Art.

“For an artist who paints landscapes, coastal scenes, and wildlife, Kenya was the perfect place to be.”

-Chris Robitaille, Xplorer Maps’ artist and co-founder

One of the best parts of attending the art school was that many of the professors were working professionals. “I saw their work on billboards throughout Toronto. Through their mentoring, we saw a direct connection between the projects we were working on at school and the ones we would encounter in the real world,” Chris said.

In his third year, he won the college’s Award for Excellence in Illustration, and the industry people began to approach him. While finishing his art degree, he began to work at the advertising agency, DDB Worldwide.  He started working in the art department, designing storyboards and layouts.

“DDB was known for the Volkswagen ads of the 50s and 60s that revolutionized advertising and was ranked as the best advertising campaign of the 20th century,” Chris said. “I got to work on some pretty high-profile projects like the Porsche and Audi campaigns.”

After three years at DDB, Chris decided to venture out on his own as a freelancer. Life as a freelance artist was exciting and incredibly busy – too busy to allow him time to paint the things he wanted to paint. After returning from a vacation in Africa, Chris decided that a change of scenery was needed. That’s when he sold everything, packed up, and moved to Kenya.

“My parents thought I was insane,” Chris said.

The slower pace and less stressful environment in Nairobi allowed Chris to focus on fine-art and painting wildlife. In the art community, artists typically had art shows in local restaurants. “I would hire someone to do the lighting, develop a mailing list, and rent a restaurant. Tons of people would come to the show, and I would give the restaurant owner a painting for payment.”

During this time, Chris gained international recognition as a wildlife artist. “For an artist who paints landscapes, coastal scenes, and wildlife, Kenya was the perfect place to be.”

It was in Kenya where he met his future wife, Vanessa, who was born in England and moved to the country as a young girl. Vanessa’s family had come to Kenya from England and had lived in the bush in close proximity to hyenas and lions for two years while they were establishing their wheat farm, Chris said. “It was definitely alternative living.” When he met Vanessa, she was teaching at an international prep school in Nairobi.

Vanessa and Chris have been married for 18 years and have two children, Becca, 15, and Max, 16. When Vanessa got a job offer at another school in 2007, the Robitaille family moved from Kenya to Suzhou, China. In 2011, they moved again to Abu Dhabi where they lived for four years, and then to Thailand where Vanessa is now the head of prep at a British curriculum international school.

In addition to being co-founder of Xplorer Maps, Chris is the owner of Robitaille Paintings, and his work can be found in private collections all over the world.

The family has enjoyed the adventure of exploring new and exotic countries, but will likely return to Toronto when Becca and Max are ready to attend college. Selected as a featured artist of the International Wildlife Film Festival in Missoula, Chris has many ties to Montana. Next summer, Chris will be at Flathead Lake and the Bigfork Festival of Arts. He hopes to visit Glacier Park again and try to find another grizzly bear to sketch.

Top photo caption: Xplorer Maps’ artist and co-founder Chris Robitaille pictured at work illustrating the world map. Robitaille’s artistic style is influenced by his training at the Ontario College of Art. He hand-illustrates each map, intricately detailing every line, and letter. Robitaille currently lives in Thailand but regularly visits Missoula, Montana, where his brother, Greg, lives and the company headquarters is located.

Author: Shannon Furniss is the marketing-communications director at Xplorer Maps.