When he was in high school, Chris Smith was a hotshot baseball player. The scouts were coming around. And then a bad-hop grounder changed everything. He took one in the left eye and lost much of his sight in it. When it became apparent to the doctors that the situation was not going to improve, Smith had two questions.
“The first thing I asked them was whether I could still paint,” the 46-year-old father of two remembers. “And the next was whether I could still shoot a shotgun.”
Even as a teenager, Smith knew he was an artist/sportsman.
Born in Saginaw to a school teacher/sportsman — who ultimately went into magazine publishing — Smith moved to Traverse City as a senior in high school where his dad headquartered his publishing enterprise. He became a northern Michigander and never left, attending Lake Superior State University and settling in Leelanau County.
“I was one of those kids that was an artist in high school, but I didn’t want to go to art school; I was informed by several wildlife artists not to,” said Smith, who was a fish and wildlife major. “I didn’t want to spend years painting flowers and nudes. Well, some nudes.”
Smith had begun selling illustrations to publishers while in high school and college, and soon, he was painting covers for his father’s magazines — Pointing Dog Journal and Retriever Journal — and the light bulb went off; he put an ad in his dad’s magazines as a canine portrait artist featuring a couple of his cover works. He soon garnered commissions.
“Everybody’s crazy about their dogs, and a lot of people are willing to pay someone to paint an accurate depiction of their dog — as long as it looks like their dog,” he said.
Portraits of dogs — not just hunting dogs and, over a period, cats and horses, as well — became the backbone of Smith’s livelihood. But it didn’t stop him from pursuing his first love: wildlife art. Especially ducks.
“If I could do nothing but wildlife for the rest of my career, I would be happy,” he said.
Meeting the governor is probably one of the few times I’ve ever sat back and said, ‘That was cool.’
— Chris Smith
And so would the wildlife art community. Smith’s renderings have graced conservation prints almost since he started, and he appears to be getting better at it. Smith won the state of Michigan’s duck stamp contest in 2005, was chosen to paint the state’s Ducks Unlimited print in 2009 and 2014, and has gone on a recent tear, winning the state duck stamp contest in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
His most recent duck stamp design — a pair of widgeons flying over the marsh with a hunter and his dog in a small boat below — recently was selected as the first-ever Governor’s Edition duck stamp print, something that tickled Smith.
“Meeting the governor is probably one of the few times I’ve ever sat back and said, ‘That was cool,’” he said. “I think painting ducks from my own state is really neat, but having one hanging in the governor’s office is, wow, that’s something. And, of course, it’s for conservation. It was done primarily as a fundraiser for wetlands restoration and acquisition. The Michigan Duck Hunters Association will be spending the money.”
But if you prod him, he’ll acknowledge he was especially proud of that painting before the governor got involved.
“The 2018 duck stamp is the first Michigan duck stamp with a dog in it,” he said, “I think that’s completely cool, as we’re big retriever folks and not only are they cool to have in the boat, they’re a conservation tool.”
Smith, who also does a little outdoor writing — his first book, “Small Water Waterfowling,” should be hitting the shelves about now — works in all media: oils, acrylics, watercolors, pen and ink, even pencil. He gets great satisfaction from his work (though he remains his own harshest critic) because he said he’s doing what he’s supposed to be doing.
“My take on it is a little more spiritual,” Smith said. “After you get through the, ‘What am I going to do with my life,’ we all ask ourselves in high school and college, I think God gives you talent, and it’s your job to figure out what to do with it. If you have a creative talent, like artwork, you’ve got to explore it. Making the decision on whether you’re going to do it for a living or do it for a hobby, that’s the tricky part.
“Doing it with passion, but not emotionally — like a job — that’s the challenge,” Smith said. “There are days when I go downstairs to paint and, ugh, I don’t want to be there.
“But I think truly successful people are happy and content because they like what they do and you have to make a living. Combining the passion with making a living is tricky. It takes a lot of work.”
Bob Gwizdz is a career outdoor writer who lives in East Lansing.