By Mark Bedor
It’s such a seemingly simple subject: a lone teepee. Yet Montana artist Tom Gilleon makes this iconic dwelling of the Plains Indians a mesmerizing sight to behold. He takes this classic symbol of the American West and paints it in a way that is strikingly authentic and yet somewhat impressionistic. His teepee paintings have become popular with collectors throughout the West. “Many of my collectors want western, but they don’t want ‘Charlie Russell western,’” says Gilleon. “So I give them the Old West with a more contemporary feel.”
Most of Gilleon’s teepee paintings have a similar composition, with a single teepee or small grouping of teepees dominating the canvas, yet no two are alike. And while no human figures are seen, each teepee nonetheless has its own story. You can readily imagine a family inside, warm in their buffalo robes and safe from the weather.
The compositional elements of his teepee paintings are strikingly simple: a triangular teepee with its circular base, both framed on a square canvas. “To me, the teepee has always been intriguing because of its primary shapes,” he observes. “When I started painting teepees, I thought ‘circle, triangle, square … that’s pretty basic,’ and then I chose a red-yellow-blue palette. And people really liked the paintings. I think it’s something psychological—people are attracted to primary shapes and colors.”
Still, Gilleon never imagined his teepee paintings would be as popular as they have turned out to be. “I had been painting landscapes, but I was getting tired of that, so I painted a big teepee. I liked it, but the whole time I was working on it I was thinking, ‘What a waste of time. Nobody is going to want to buy this!’” he recalls. “Well, I sold it to the owner of a resort in Montana, who hung it in the lodge. And I’ve been painting teepees ever since.”
That was about six years ago, and Gilleon’s teepee paintings have since graced a number of magazine covers, including Southwest Art’s in January 2006. More recently, Gilleon has started a series he calls “niners.” He divides a 60-by-60-inch canvas into nine equal squares, each with its own subject. RED TIDE RECEDING, for example, features portraits of six 19th-century Indian chiefs, a buffalo skull, a war shield, and, in the center, a teepee.
Gilleon says the idea for niners came to him while he was working on a website for an online company. “In the process of designing it, I was looking at all these Andy Warhol images and observing how he did things, especially his multiples,” says Gilleon. “I thought it would be dynamite to do something similar with Native Americans.” These paintings have proved equally as popular with collectors. “I’ve got some pretty heavy hitters that go for the niners,” says Gilleon, citing, among others, the Booth Western Art Museum in Georgia, which commissioned one for its permanent collection.
Gilleon’s current work is the latest chapter in a remarkably productive and creative career, sparked perhaps by the example of his grandfather. When Gilleon was just a toddler, his sister was stricken with polio. Preoccupied with caring for a sick child, Tom’s parents sent him to live with his grandparents in the small Florida town of Starke. “He was quite an artist,” Gilleon says of his grandfather, a Scottish immigrant who made his living as a cabinet maker. “In the evenings he would draw. He drew pictures of sharks, whales, and sailing ships. He drew all kinds of things that were really interesting to me.” Young Tom, only about 4 years old, was soon following his grandfather’s example. “Instead of a lawn, their yard was white sand. Using a stick, I would draw for hours and hours in that sand.” By the time he entered grade school and returned to his parents’ house in Orlando, his interest in art was firmly instilled.
Gilleon was also a good baseball player, and in high school his pitching earned him a scholarship to the University of Florida. His shoulder still painfully reminds him of those days on the ball field. “I lift a brush and it hurts,” says the artist, who turns 68 this year. “I can feel every curve ball I threw.” But accepting the scholarship meant Gilleon would have been required to study architecture, which didn’t interest him. So he joined the navy instead.
After four years in the navy, he went back to Florida, where he attended the Ringling College of Art and Design in Sarasota. When Elliott McMurrough, his favorite instructor, left to start his own school, Gilleon followed. “I’d say he’s probably the one person that I learned the most from,” says Gilleon. “He forced us to skip the details. In fact, for the first two years, we were not allowed to use a brush. We had to paint with a palette knife.”
Why? “Because there’s a tendency for beginning artists to get caught up in the details. If you’re painting a face, for example, you start thinking about the eyes, the eyelashes—all of the minute details that don’t mean anything if you don’t have the basic forms and shapes right,” he explains. “It’s almost like painting racing stripes on a car before it’s built.”
Gilleon never did earn a degree. But he did learn his craft. He landed his first job as an illustrator for NASA’s Apollo program. A year later, a better offer took him to New York to work as an illustrator for a computer company. Gilleon eventually returned to Orlando and started freelancing for local advertising agencies. This was at the same time that Disney began buying up property for what would become Disney World. Disney soon became Gilleon’s primary client. When the company made him a highly attractive offer as a full-time employee, he accepted and moved to California.
At Disney’s Burbank studios, he worked alongside what he calls “old era” art directors and illustrators. “They had an amazing ability to pick up a brush and quickly and simply tell a story or convey a feeling,” he recalls. “Especially Herb Ryman, a legendary Disney artist.” Ryman believed strongly in simplicity—an influence that is evident today in Gilleon’s artwork.
It was at Disney studios that Gilleon met his wife, Laurie Stevens, a successful artist in her own right. Today, the couple and their two children live on a secluded ranch about 25 miles outside of Great Falls, MT. Tom and Laurie share a studio on the upper level of their home, a contemporary western-style house. Outside their studio windows, the unchanging ranchland, the wildlife, and the rich history of the region clearly inspire their work.
The Gilleons relocated to Montana while Tom was still working full time for Disney. He would fly to California for a day to discuss projects and receive assignments, which he would then complete back home. The Disney job was so lucrative that Gilleon says he never really thought about pursuing a fine art career. “I would do my own paintings on the side, but it was never really a big focus for me because I was doing so well at Disney,” he explains.
Then a gallery owner opened his eyes to the possibilities: “He said, ‘If you paint full time, I can guarantee you will make more than at Disney.’ I didn’t believe him, but sure enough, that’s what happened. And I haven’t looked back since.” That transition began just as Gilleon was finishing his first teepee painting, the one he thought would never sell.
Today he is also working on another series of western paintings—pictures of grain elevators. While a solitary grain elevator may seem an unlikely choice for a fine art painting, Gilleon has transformed that lonely tower of the Montana prairie into intriguing works of art, perhaps as engaging as his teepee paintings. “If you think about it, they are both icons of the American West,” he muses. “And it’s that single image set against the sky.”
Collectors and fans of Gilleon’s art will be happy to know that he is hard at work. He likes to keep busy, intent on his oil paintings as well as on a steady stream of other projects, including a book on the art of illustration. He seems mostly to be motivated by the simple pleasure of creating. “It’s just fun,” he says with a smile.
He is represented by Mountain Trails Gallery, Jackson, WY; Dana Gallery, Missoula, MT; Montana Trails Gallery, Bozeman, MT; Altermann Galleries & Auctioneers, Santa Fe, NM; www.timberlinestudios.com.
Featured in March 2009