AN INTERVIEW WITH R. TOM GILLEON
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Tom Gilleon & information from the artist’s web site tomgilleon.art
Ralph Thomas Gilleon has lived an extraordinary and interesting life, full of adventure, beauty, inspiration, and creativity. While Tom might say it was luck that brought him this bounty of experience and success, most people can see that it was his exceptional talent, innovation, and drive that led him to be one of the world’s foremost contemporary and western artists. Tom has been compared to Edgar Degas and draws inspiration from the likes of Charlie Russell and Andy Warhol. Looking at his work you can see that his mesmerizing use of color gives even the most traditional subject matter a fresh point of view and an emotional pull that is uniquely Tom Gilleon.
“I am attracted to the elements, to the basics. Many of my designs are basic shapes and executed through variations on primary colors - square, triangle and circle; red, yellow and blue,” Tom is quoted as saying.
Born in Gainesville, Fla., in 1942, Tom started life with his parents and two siblings, but was sent to Starke, Fla., to live with his grandparents when his older sister was stricken with polio. The house in the country had no electricity, so evenings were filled with stories, lessons, and sketching. His grandfather, a Scottish cabinetmaker, and his grandmother, an artist with ties to Native Americans, were his inspiration and his teachers. School, however, did not hold great interest for Tom, and while he was often bored in front of a chalkboard, he found that his white sandy backyard was a perfect canvas on which to draw and layer shapes, creating his early
“I would spend a lot of the day just drawing, but drawing in the sand. So, it wasn’t like a drawing pad and pencils and papers and all that, it was with a big, long stick.” he said. “I would draw anything that came to mind. I would just make up my own pictures of it. I think pretty much the way every kid does. You make up your own story and then you do your own little drawings.”
When he wasn’t drawing in the sand, Tom was throwing rocks from the railroad track near his grandparents’ house. He got so strong and accurate that after high school he was offered a baseball scholarship to the University of Florida. The only catch was that he had to study architecture.
“Well, architecture wasn’t a real love of mine,” he said. “Seeing myself in a shirt and tie and at a drawing board for the rest of my life just didn’t excite me at all.” So, Tom left college and did what many young men did back then, he joined the United States Navy. And it was there that he found adventure as well as opportunity.
“The Navy was exceptionally good to me. I just had good fortune from day one to the very end. Some really interesting and exciting things happened during that time period,” he said. Tom attended Electronics Radio School in Maryland and was then stationed in Newfoundland, in Eastern Canada, during which time he flew on anti-submarine patrols to Iceland. Toward the end of his service, Tom served aboard the USS Rankin, a naval attack cargo ship, during the Cuban Missile Crisis. As a Navy-trained cryptographer, Tom had access to highly classified information during this unsettling time in 1960s international relations.
“I was supposed to fly back to the United States for a month’s leave, and that was when the Cuban Missile Crisis hit, and all flights were canceled. So, I went from Newfoundland directly to a ship going to Cuba,” he said. “It was the face-off between [Soviet Prime Minister Nikita] Khrushchev and [U.S. President John F.] Kennedy. It was very frightening. Pretty much everybody was pretty sure we were all dead. It was just, ‘What is this going to be?’ But the sun came up one day and everything was over. And it was like it never happened.”
Tom’s position as a cryptographer led him to a communications position for Pan American World Airlines in 1965, after his Navy service was completed. At that time, Pan Am was a defense contractor involved in America’s space race, and he was tasked with transmitting messages to down-range ships throughout the Caribbean and also served as a radio operator aboard the USNS Arnold.
“I was just able to walk onto a job with the USNS Arnold. It was a tracking ship for the Guided Missile Range Division. It was launched from Cape Canaveral [now Cape Kennedy] and then it had ships in position along that flight path,” he said.
But during his four years in the Navy and his time at Pan Am, Tom kept on drawing, and eventually his talent opened the door to a position as an artist at Pan Am, creating illustrations for the space program.
“I started making friends and talking to people in the art department, which was providing art to NASA for the Apollo program. Eventually a position opened, and they asked me if I’d be interested, and so I went from a crypto operator to illustrator. And that’s where I officially became an artist,” he said. “I felt like that’s where I should be. I had finally made it. I was officially an artist making a living as an artist, so it was a good feeling.”
Tom was in his mid 20s when he landed the position at Pan Am, and by that time, he had married and began raising a family. After he left Pan Am, Tom worked briefly in upstate New York, then moved back to Florida and opened a commercial art studio in Orlando. And that fortuitous timing defined the next portion of Tom’s art career.
“No one knew it at the time, but I was opening up a studio in the future back yard of Disney. Talk about luck,” he said. “They were already building the park and had already started their marketing campaign, so they immediately began looking for local people able to do graphic art and illustration, and there just weren’t any.”
Disney hired Tom as a freelancer to create marketing materials and to draw concept illustrations for EPCOT Center and other Disney attractions. Tom said his was one of just two local art studios doing work for Disney, and balancing their project load with the needs of other clients became overwhelming.
“I practically gave up just about every one of my clients that I had before and was pretty much exclusive to Disney anyway. So, eventually, they made me an offer that was really quite good, and so I took that and went on staff,” Tom said.
Disney quickly recognized Tom’s exceptional talents and he was asked to join Walt Disney Imagineering, the research and development arm of the company, located in California. Tom moved out to the Los Angeles area where he created concept illustrations for Disneyland parks, shows, and attractions in Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Hong Kong. He was also involved in designs for Lake Buena Vista, DisneyQuest and several Disney golf resorts.
“People were always pitching an idea for more Disney parks, and I would be in that beginning phase of just doing paintings and drawings for the visuals,” he said.
One of the most awe inspiring aspects of Tom’s early life at Disney was his close working relationship with the “dream team” of illustrators, including Herb Ryman, Dorothea Redmond, John Hench, Boris Levin, and Walt Tyler.
“Here I was just coming from basically the sticks, [coming from] Orlando to Hollywood, the big California scene, and these guys were all established. These are not lightweight people that I somehow found myself in the middle of and trying to keep up with. In the beginning, I just kept looking around to see if someone made a mistake. Was I really supposed to be there?” Tom said. “This group of incredible, well-known artists and designers would just sit and talk to me like I was one of their equals. It was mind-blowing. I just tried to be really quiet and hope no one noticed that I wasn’t supposed to be there.”
Tom worked at Disney in California from the mid-70s through the mid-80s, but eventually, the new and exciting Disney projects began to give way to more mundane “mop up” projects. It was around then that Tom and some Disney colleagues headed to Montana for a visit, which turned out to be life altering, and, eventually, career changing.
“There was a group of 20 artists who got together and rented a little guest ranch out in the middle of nowhere, and in the middle of winter in January. It was 25 [degrees] below [zero], lots of snow, and we just spent a week painting and drawing,” Tom said. “And while I was there, I took a walk one day down this beautiful river. You could walk on the river because it was frozen solid. I asked if anything was available, and I just bought the land right then.”
Armed with a generous retainer agreement from Disney, Tom and his family moved to Montana and he began to create and paint his own concepts and visions.
“I gathered up some nice free time where I could do pretty much anything I wanted. So this one particular time, I had a canvas and just did a painting of a tipi, and apparently it was much more popular than I thought it would be,” Tom said.
In fact, Tom’s first tipi painting was purchased and hung prominently in Moonlight Lodge at Big Sky, where it generated attention and requests for commissions. One of those particularly interested in the painting and Tom’s work was Montana Trails Gallery owner Steve Zabel.
“Tom’s painting was incredible, and I knew he would do very well as a fine artists, despite his early reservations,” Steve said. “I was really happy that he took that leap of faith and has become the artist that he is now.”
Inspired by his new home, many of Tom’s paintings portray the land and history of the American West in thoughtful, innovative style. His work has received numerous accolades and has been featured in many prestigious western galleries, publications and exhibitions. Despite this, though, Tom hesitates to call himself a western artist, exclusively.
“I obviously love Native American art. I never get enough of that, but at the same time there is something very powerful about the old grain elevators. There are incredibly powerful views along the river and the lighting on that,” Tom said. “So, if I never painted another tipi or another Native American, I’d still have unlimited subject matter of interest to me. I’m not nearly has pigeonholed as I appear. I have a wide range of interests.”
Tom has had visions of creating art from locations all over the world, including the fjords in Iceland, the Highlands of Scotland, the rivers in Ireland, the hills of India, and the coast of Maine.
“At one time, I entertained the idea of just setting up an extremely remote studio up in the Highlands of Scotland; a family roots type of thing. Just go up, where no logical, intelligent person would want to live, and just live there,” he said. “I’m a western artist in the fact that I live in the West and I’m an artist. But I love the south coast of Ireland, too. I’d be happy painting along the coast of the Dingle Bay and Dingle Harbor, and the old fishing boats there.” Despite his thoughts of remote, rustic living, Tom makes full use of technology and has devoted many hours to learning and artistically capitalizing on computer programs that add efficiency, dimension, and movement to his work.
“In my fine arts, I do an awful lot of my sketching and thinking and planning on the computer. I can do one hundred sketches [on a computer] where it used to take the same amount of time to do two [by hand]. And I pick from the ones I’m really interested in, and then I actually develop them to completion … and then at that point I take it to the canvas with paint.”
Today, Tom is a pioneer in digital western art, having completed the first NFT created by a western artist. (An NFT, or non-fungible token, is a unique digital artifact that reflects a real- world asset, such as piece of art or music, that can be efficiently traded or sold, similar to cryptocurrency.) In addition, Tom creates and sells digital prints to a variety of collectors throughout the world. While some painters may prefer hand sketching and direct paint-to- canvas, Tom learned the value of using computers in his work during his time as a commercial artist at Disney.
But working as Disney illustrator taught Tom not just about digital illustration, he also learned a great deal about creating compelling, original fine art. And he bristles at the negative connotation that commercial illustration can sometimes invoke.
“When Michelangelo was painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it wasn’t because one morning he awoke and got inspired to paint a mural on the ceiling of a church. He was an illustrator for the Pope,” Tom has been quoted as saying. “Looking back, I was probably most influenced by the old era art directors and illustrators, Herb Ryman especially, who had the amazing ability to quickly and simply tell a story or convey a feeling with their artwork. I believe that this simplicity and strength is the key to fine art. Light, color, value, composition and line are paramount in importance. A good work of art is so much more than a copied photograph. In eliminating the unnecessary elements and being as direct as possible, an artist has the opportunity to tell a story, to guide the viewer’s eye and emotion.”
When asked about his own style and inspiration, Tom hesitates to give it a label, because it changes day to day.
“One day I am one thing and the very next day I am something totally different. I don’t know who I’m going to be tomorrow. But I know, visually, if I do something I’m really interested in, I never try to ask myself ‘What’s the style going to be?’ I just start working and that’s what comes out.”
Interestingly, Tom says this type of freedom from creative confines is exactly what can make being an artist difficult at times.
“The biggest challenge is having no one there to tell you what to do. Everyone talks about how much we want artistic freedom, but that is a heavy thing to handle when there’s no one to tell you [what to do]. It’s totally up to you. You walk in, you pick up a brush and it’s going to be you that either succeeds or fails. There’s no excuses for why you didn’t succeed,” he said. “When you get to the point where you have that freedom that we all talk about, it’s a scary thing. I think of it as the guys who go outside the space capsule for their walk in space, but without the tether. That’s a scary feeling. You have total freedom but you could also float away into space.”
Now in his eighties with no signs of stopping, Tom has asked himself, “If somehow you knew that this was the last painting you will ever do, what would you want to do differently?” This introspection has been the basis for MMXX, a series of works in which he strives to make each new painting his best painting yet.
“The one that I am working on is the one that’s my last painting. That’s the one that I want to be the absolute best. But I’ve done that with all of them,” Tom said in a video on his web site. “Deep down in my heart I feel like each one is getting better. So, if that’s true, and I hope that it is, I think it was a brilliant idea to approach art that way.”
Maria Abad, MTG director, says the gallery is thrilled and honored to present Tom Gilleon, the fascinating man and his transcendent work, in a solo show entitled Big Medicine, which will be open to the public beginning on November 19 through the end of the year.
“We are so happy to represent Tom again. He is one of the artists that I have always dreamed of having at MTG, and I can’t believe it is happening,” Maria said. “We look forward to seeing our walls dressed up with his works!”
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