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There’s a wonderful irony in the fact that Christopher Warren built a successful career by making art out of topographic maps: When he started, that path was nowhere on his life map.
Warren was a film student at Boulder, Colo.’s University of Colorado when he stumbled upon his passion. He was taking a geology class to satisfy his science requirements, and he learned the department was giving away a bunch of outdated topographic maps to anyone who wanted them.
He biked over to the science building, grabbed a bunch of maps, and spent the next three weeks coloring them in with Sharpies by hand. “They looked really cool, but they gave me hand-cramps,” he said, laughing. Then his roommate told him he could get the maps free online and color them in digitally—and the artist was born.
Now, Warren makes sculptures, murals, clothing, and, now, skis—all inspired by the topo maps that first captured his imagination. In his new collaboration with Wagner Custom, he has created a graphic for Wagner’s home hill of Telluride, plus Big Sky, Alta, and the Grand Canyon. (If you’d like a custom graphic for your home hill, contact Wagner today at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
We caught up with him at his home in Boulder to find out more about his latest collection. (Side note, check out his website, Beatnik Prints, where you’ll find he’s not only insanely talented but hilarious, too. His art is also featured at Walker Fine Art in Denver.)
Wagner: Where does your love for maps come from?
Warren: I grew up in Durango, and for my whole life I’ve been torn between the desert canyons of Utah and the mountains of southern Colorado—some of the most classic landscapes of the West. That whole mix put an appreciation for topography in my head at a young age.
Wagner: Have you ever designed skis before?
Warren: No, but I have my own clothing line and I do a lot of sculpture, so I have experience with putting patterns on 3-D objects.
Wagner: How was it translating your art to skis? They’re not an easy shape, I’d imagine...
Warren: I tried to wrap and elongate the design so it would go with the shape of skis better, but I found that I was missing out on a lot of cool data that the mountains have. I really had to figure out how to frame that specifically. With Telluride, it was a little bit of a challenge. The ski area itself is on the tips and the Dallas Divide is on the tails. The Grand Canyon skis were the easiest—I threaded the river down the entire ski.
Wagner: Your sculptures are so cool. Was learning how to fabricate them a challenge?
Warren: I did a little bit of carpentry work in high school for theater building sets. My dad is a really good carpenter, and he taught me some stuff—despite me not being really interested at the time. Learning how to use machines to cut stuff has been so fun—I’ve done lots of deep dives on youtube.
Wagner: Where do you build them?
Warren: I’m very blessed to have a great Makerspace (a free workshop run by the Boulder Public Library) here with what’s called a tinker mill, laser cutter, wood shop, metal shop, and all that. I pretty much work exclusively in Adobe Illustrator, and the pieces are never 3-D in the computer, but in my brain I know how they’ll generally work out. But I never know for sure until I actually build it up with the physical material. I get to surprise myself.
Wagner: When you look back, are you surprised at your career path?
Warren: The sculpture part makes sense. I always liked sculpture, and did a lot of ceramics as a kid. I’m a little surprised that I create things in a 2-D medium, though, because I’m not the best at putting ideas down on paper. I never thought I’d be a muralist, that I’d have the 2-D chops to make that kind of art.
Wagner: What’s next for you?
Warren: Sculptures are definitely my passion. I’ve gotten some big commissions in the last year and a half, and I’m trying to work in outdoor sculpture more, using big sheets of metal that kids can climb on and all that. I find public art really exciting.