The art of R. Tom Gilleon

By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor

BIG SKY – With paintings that command six figures—“dead man prices” to some—and the only living artist for whom the C.M. Russell Museum has thrown a solo retrospective, it’s fair to say R. Tom Gilleon is one of the most successful Western artists working today.

Gilleon, who lives with his wife, artist Laurie Stevens, on a 2,000-acre ranch southwest of Great Falls, Montana, was in town to play in the Big Brothers Big Sisters Celebrity Golf Tournament on July 10, but Big Sky’s significance goes deeper than an appreciation for the area greens. It’s also where what Gilleon calls the “tipi phenomenon” took hold.

Gilleon paints a wide range of subject matter, from landscapes to comic works imbued with satirical commentary, but his depictions of Native American scenes, and especially his tipis, are what his patrons clamor for.

In the late ‘90s, Gilleon put a canvas on the easel and painted the tipi outside his studio window.

“I kept thinking, ‘This is a waste of canvas; a waste of paint; nobody in their right mind is ever going to want a painting of a tipi,’” he said.

But late Moonlight Basin founder Lee Poole picked it up and put it in the lodge’s dining room.

It wasn’t long before Gilleon started receiving requests for commissions. The popularity of his tipis, shrouded shelters that emanate a warm, inviting glow, made the artist take a deeper look at the structure’s universal allure.

Artist R. Tom Gilleon, renowned for his depictions of Native American subject matter, performs a quick finish for a piece in the Arts
Council Art Auction held at Moonlight Basin Lodge in March. PHOTO BY SARAH GIANELLI

“It’s deeper than just the American Indian,” said Gilleon, who studied architecture in college before embarking on creative careers with NASA and Disney. “All over the world, every culture you see has some kind of pyramid.”

The triangle is symbolic of mystery, an effect heightened by the artist’s particular gift for rendering light.

The tipi is also quintessentially American, and representative of our inherently nomadic nature.

Although you wouldn’t know by looking at him, the tall, bearded Gilleon is one-eighth Native American.

When I floundered finding the words to ask Gilleon how he is received by other Native American artists, he didn’t hesitate to fill in the blank.

“I do have blood so I understand the sensitivity there. One of my very best friends is a Blackfeet and … he knows it’s not something I take lightly. I think it’s something that comes through in the art. That I don’t just take a picture off Google and copy it.”

Gilleon does work off of historic images, but he doesn’t directly copy the drawings that appear on the tipis. Rather, he creates a stylized version of his own.

“I change it so I don’t feel like I’m taking his,” Gilleon said.

Gilleon was raised in large part by his full-blooded Cherokee grandmother and Scottish grandfather, a talented cabinetmaker, in the small town of Starke, Florida.

In the 1960s being Native American was not something you drew attention to Gilleon said, but his grandmother’s heritage did have an influence.

“She would take me into the woods and show me edibles, take me fishing and show me how to get the little shellfish … basically how to survive. Everything she’d show me was ‘you learn to do this so you don’t have to take their goddamn cheese.’ That’s what I learned from her—learn to do things for yourself and don’t depend on other people to do it.”

Jokingly, Gilleon said the real mystery is why his grandfather was on the run from Scotland. “All of my ancestors were rebels,” he said. “So it’s natural that I would be too.”

One way Gilleon has been a revolutionary is through his Digital Canvases, which mark an exciting shift from static, oil paintings to the realm of “moving paintings” in which a scene transitions through changing hours of day and night, weather and seasons.

The Digital Canvas series is a collaboration with inventor Marshall Monroe, who Gilleon worked with as a Walt Disney Imagineer.

Set to the gentle soundtrack of a Native American flute, “Hungry Fox Equinox” is a seamless seven-minute loop that depicts a glowing tipi in a winter landscape. The sun sets, the evening glows, a flurry of snow kicks up, smoke rises from the tipi, and the aurora borealis pulsates through the sky before the sun rises and the sequence begins again.

These digital works begin with a very basic oil painting by Gilleon that provides the brushstroke effect of an actual painting. This painting is photographed and replicated digitally to become the base layer for as many as 30 separate, digitally rendered paintings. As one of these digital paintings fades away, another slowly takes its place, creating the illusion of movement.

Gilleon is currently working on another digital canvas featuring Cascade County’s Square Butte, also the subject of many Charlie Russell paintings.

“Suppose you could go back and you could ask Charlie Russell—and instantly make him as computer savvy as he is with oil. … Would he pick [painting] where he could only get one horse leg up in the air, or would he [have it] move throughout the entire day and tell the whole story?”

Gilleon would bank on the latter—and has—but would never give up painting with oils, either.

“I hope at some stage in the near future I can draw and paint the way I did [when I was a child], where every brushstroke I made was absolutely right—it was probably horrible-looking but it was all me, and there was never a doubt. Financially I’m able to do it now, but can I actually get back to that freedom? I think Picasso did, and I really hope I can too.”