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Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

Early Life

Tom Gilleon was born in 1942 in Gainesville, Florida. His parents, with three children to raise—including an older sister stricken with polio—sent him to live in the country with his grandparents near Starke, Florida. In a home with no electricity, evening entertainment was sketching and storytelling by kerosene lamp. Tom learned to draw by watching his immigrant grandfather draw, a gifted artist and cabinetmaker from Scotland. Tom’s grandmother was full-blood Cherokee. Also an artist, she strongly aligned herself with Native American culture and made sure Tom learned survival skills—hunting, fishing, gathering edible plants and, above all, dependence on no one. She taught Tom how to shoot a rifle shortly after he learned to walk.


Unlike most children, Tom grew up amongst acres of towering pines and a yard made of white sand—a never ending blank canvas upon which to draw. It was there Tom’s art career began to manifest. He created hundreds of drawings with a stick in the sand. Starting with the horizon for spatial definition—he drew the ocean. Then he intersected it with the mast of a ship. By adding a triangle and half-circle to draw a boat and sail, he learned the power of geometric shapes to tell stories.  In later years, Tom would incorporate these lessons with his mastery of luminosity, color, and visual storytelling he would learn from some of America’s greatest painters while illustrating at Disney.  But it was his passion for the American West that finally inspired his fine art career—giving rise to his world renowned style of Contemporary Art.

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

The 1960s  

In his youth, when Tom wasn’t honing his budding artistic skills, he would often spend hours hurling rocks from a nearby railroad track. As a result, his throwing arm became so strong and accurate—it helped earn him a University of Florida baseball scholarship. At the time, only architecture degrees were offered with baseball scholarships. Despite his pitching talent, Tom knew architecture was not his future. He left the university at the end of his first year and, much to the dismay of his family, promptly joined the Navy.

In 1961, while attending Electronics Radio School in Bainbridge, Maryland, Seaman Gilleon was chosen to march in John F. Kennedy’s inaugural parade. Following graduation, Tom flew on anti-submarine patrols in the North Atlantic. He later served aboard the USS Rankin, a naval attack cargo ship in the Cuban/USSR nuclear missile blockade. As a cryptographer, Tom was privy to highly classified information and the peril of mutually assured destruction facing the United States and the rest of the world.

Tom returned to civilian life in 1964 and married Shirley Ingham. With hope of using the GI Bill, he applied to Ringling College of Art & Design in Sarasota, Florida. Disappointed to discover there was a two year waiting list, he chose to enroll in the Art Students Guild of Brevard whose founder, Elliot McMurrough, was a former chief instructor at Ringling College. Shunning the typically prescribed coursework that would lead to a degree, Tom only attended studio art classes led by teachers he felt could develop his talents the quickest. To afford his classes, he modeled for drawing classes and illustrated for his freelance business clients.

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

In 1965 Tom was hired as a communications specialist by Pan American World Airlines, a defense contractor deeply involved in America’s move toward space. He settled at Patrick Air Force Base near Cape Canaveral as the same time as astronauts Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, and Alan Shepard. Tom was tasked with transmitting messages to down range ships throughout the Caribbean and also served as a radio operator aboard the tracking ship USNS Arnold. It wasn’t long before Tom’s artistic talents were discovered by the Art Department at Pan Am and they promptly reassigned him to illustrate NASA’s Saturn and Apollo space programs. Tom recalls, “I transferred from being an electronics communicator to a visual communicator.” It was in this position that Tom learned the discipline of drafting, technical precision, and the elimination of all unnecessary detail within his art.

Tom and Shirley welcomed three children—Tom Jr. in 1964, Cherie in 1966, and Dan in 1967. At the time, Tom was still freelancing at night and building quite a following. Tom moved his young family to New York in 1969 after being hired by an startup computer company, Mohawk Data Sciences—one of the country’s first high tech firms, to produce their marketing materials. A vivid memory he recalls from his time in New York is walking the grounds of The Woodstock Music Festival the day after it closed, adding, “Timing is everything”.

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

Charlie Russell Horse Barn, Gilleon Ranch

The 1970s        

Tom’s freelance work began earning him more than he was being paid at Mohawk. He made the decision to return to the booming economy of Florida and focused on expanding his growing design and illustration business. In 1974, Tom’s artwork was brought to the attention of nearby Walt Disney World. Impressed, Disney hired him to conceptualize designs for the upcoming high-tech EPCOT Center in Orlando. Keeping to his grandmother’s principle for self-sufficiency, Tom successfully negotiated his right to continue freelancing at night to serve his loyal business clients.

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

French Pavilion World Showcase by Tom Gilleon

The 1980s    

Having earned the respect and admiration of Disney executives, they began to compete amongst themselves to attach Tom to their projects. He was soon asked to join the research and development arm of the company in California—Walt Disney Imagineering.  Tom went on to create concept illustrations for Disneyland theme parks and attractions in Paris, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Hong Kong.

Tom was handed the torch to work next to Herb Ryman, Dorothea Redmond, and John Hench. These highly acclaimed masters of story illustration are best known for creating “the look and feel of everything Disney.” Prior to Disney, Herb had been the sole illustrator at MGM Studios during its “Golden Age” in the 1930s before Walt Disney personally hired Herb away from MGM in 1938.  Herb turned down MGM’s offer to be Art Director for Gone With The Wind in order to begin his first assignment at Disney as Art Director for the animated film, Fantasia—awarded “One of The Greatest American Films” by the American Film Institute.

In 1982, Tom and his second wife, Laurie Stevens (a fine art painter and muralist at Disney), attended an outdoor painting workshop in Montana. Immediately enchanted by the history, expansive landscapes, and the raw beauty of the state’s mountains and rivers—Tom and Laurie bought a small ranch, sight unseen under 2-feet of snow, facing the Rocky Mountains, in Augusta, Montana. They built a home on the property and settled in to working remotely for Disney while raising their two daughters, Kristi and Kelsey. Tom viewed embracing a frontier lifestyle—where winter storms gale to 80 mph and temperatures fall to -20 degrees for months on end—as a subtle nod to his grandmother who had insisted on self-sufficiency and a humble life.


Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

The 1990s    

After spending most of the previous decade illustrating theme parks, attractions, and shows for Disney—living in Montana inspired Tom to develop a fine art career. Increasingly, his works portrayed the land and history of the American West in a modernist style. Latigo & Lace Gallery in Augusta, Montana, became the first art gallery to represent Tom’s paintings for sale.

Tom and Laurie sold their ranch in Augusta in 1994 and purchased a 2,000 acre ranch on the banks of the Missouri River in Cascade, Montana. The ranch was rich with history and had been visited by Lewis & Clark in 1805. In later years it had become a favorite watering hole for famous western painter, Charlie Russell, who was best friends with the family from whom Tom bought the ranch. Russell wintered his horse in the very same barn where Tom keeps his horse today. Tom rides the same cedar post fence to Square Butte that Russell rode and paints the same scenery Russell painted 100 years ago. In this way, it moves one to contemplate how the spirit of Charlie Russell flows through Tom and informs the colorful, contemporary style of his works today. Both Montana ranchers and artists; both hardy, entertaining, self-sufficient men of the West with values for freedom and independence.


Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

The 2000s    

Altamira Gallery in Jackson Hole began exhibiting Tom’s artwork for sale and Tom was named Feature Artist of the 2009 Jackson Hole Wyoming Fall Arts Festival. In 2010, Tom’s work was exhibited in The National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.  Capital advisor, Tim Peterson, whose vast and diverse collection of Western art fills much of The Scottsdale Museum of the West, began a major collection of Tom’s art.

The Booth Western Art Museum of Cartersville, Georgia honored Tom in 2012 with his first major solo exhibit featuring 40 paintings. Entitled “The Iconic West of R. Tom Gilleon”, the museum produced a show catalogue consisting of five articles. One of the articles is a moving tribute written by Ernest Hemingway’s only living son, Patrick—an avid art collector of Tom Gilleon. Gilleon's sophisticated use of colors has been described as "magical elegance” by Patrick Hemingway and compared to contemporary fine art painters Edward Hopper and Mark Rothko.  Although Gilleon is a down to earth cattle rancher in Cascade, Montana, he’s acclaimed for his innovative digital paintings created with concept designer, Marshall Monroe, who he collaborated with at Walt Disney Imagineering.

In 2013, Tom became the first living artist to be given a solo exhibit at the C. M. Russell Museum, entitled “Let Icons be Icons: The Art of R. Tom Gilleon”. His painting, “Hair Apparent”, selling for $265,000 at The Russell Museum Live Auction, broke the record sale price of any living artist.

Tom’s paintings were exhibited at the Whitney Western Art Museum in Cody, Wyoming in 2014. Tom Petrie, former vice chairman of Bank of America and founder of The Petrie Institute of Western American Art at the Denver Art Museum, began a major private collection of Gilleon art.

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

Let Icons Be Icons, The Art of R Tom Gilleon
C.M. Russell Museum catalogue cover

Tom’s oil and digital paintings are held in the permanent collections of  C. M. Russell Museum, Booth Museum of Western Art, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Denver Museum of Art, Scottsdale Museum of the West, the Whitney Western Art Museum, the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry, NASA, United States Air Force, The Walt Disney Company, Universal Studios, and Warner Bros. Studios.

Tom was inducted as a founding member of the C. M. Russell Museum Skull Society of Artists in 2015. He was honored to be recognized as a modern day link between the great American artists of the late 19th century with the artists of today’s Contemporary Art movement.

Following a 2019 exhibition of his work at the Briscoe Western Art Museum in San Antonio, Texas, Tom found himself approaching his 80th birthday and desiring to turn his focus on creating a legacy for his children. He shifted from gallery representation to self-representation with the sole focus to create museum quality artwork. He refers to this transition as Vision 2020 and all future works are stamped “MMXX” to designate his masterworks.

His 72 x 60 inches oil painting, Mourning Star, sold for $350,000 at the C.M. Russell Museum Auction in 2021, setting a new record for a living artist at that auction.  His 50 x 80 inches oil painting Dirge With Black Feet sold for $375,000 at The Autry Museum’s 25th Annual Masters of the American West in 2022.

His original oil paintings may be purchased from Montana Trails Gallery in Bozeman, MT; Sorrel Sky Gallery in Durango, CO and Santa Fe, NM; Shari Brownfield Fine Art in Jackson, WY; and Sanders Gallery in Tuscon, AZ.

Exclusively represented by KingArts, Tom Gilleon's oil and digital paintings are also exhibited for sale at and by private appointment at the Gilleon Fine Art Gallery in Great Falls, MT. 

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

The Iconic West of R. Tom GIlleon
Booth Western Art Museum

“I feel when I see Tom’s art is that it’s vibrant, it’s exciting. And you can have lots of different emotions because of the different colors he mixes and puts next to each other. Some are very subtle, but most are vibrant and it gives me energy.’

- Shirley Griffeth, collector of Tom Gilleon

On The Horizon    

Opening in January of 2024, the world class Scottsdale Museum of the West is mounting a large retrospective of fine art painter, Tom Gilleon.  Exhibiting in the Great Hall of this architecturally stunning building, the show will present Tom’s life story and art career with over 70-paintings—including past and new works, 12-oil paintings he created at Disney Imagineering, 4-digital paintings, and the first NFT created by a fine art Western painter. 10-new masterwork paintings will also be exhibited for sale.


The show catalog is being designed by award winning graphic artist, Derrit DeRouen, and published in a hardback coffee table book. When the show closes in August 2024, it will tour to the Booth Western Art Museum in Atlanta, GA and the C. M. Russell Museum in Great Falls, MT.


A PBS documentary, The Art of Tom Gilleon, is being produced by independent filmmaker, Richard King, for national broadcast in 2026.

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

Permanent Museum Collections

C. M. Russell Museum

Booth Museum of Western Art

National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum

Scottsdale Museum of the West    

Whitney Western Art Museum

Denver Museum of Art

Chicago Museum of Science and Industry


Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

Magazine Covers

Southwest Art, July 2012, "Altos Llanos"

Art of the West, May/June, 2010, "Red Sky"

Western Art Collector, December 2009, "When Trees Pop"

Images, Summer 2009, "Yellow Leaves Moon"

Montana Land Reliance, Annual 2007, "Red Feather"

Southwest Art, January 2005, "Star Lodge"

In Flight, June 2005, "Red Pony Lodge"

Big Sky Journal -ARTS 2004, "Sioux Sunset"

Select Publications

A New Direction, Art of The West Magazine, March 2021

The Iconic West of R. Tom Gilleon, Booth Western Art Museum show catalogue, January 2012

Let Icons Be Icons: The Art of R. Tom Gilleon, The CM Russell Museum show catalogue, 2013

The Art of Tom Gilleon, Metanoia Art Magazine, 2014

Western Art Collector, feature September, 2015

Southwest Art Magazine, feature May, 2015

Western Art Collector, feature February 2015

Life - Tom Gilleon - Contemporary Art

The Gilleon Gallery in Great Falls, Montana