AN INTERVIEW WITH MARK GIBSON
Written by Kim Weeks from her interview with Mark Gibson
It’s delightful to speak to an artist whose work inspires so much admiration and find out that he is a genuinely nice, generous, funny human being. Mark Gibson is that artist. He is, at once, enormously talented and genuinely humble. His work is a self-proclaimed “labor of love,” and much of that love is creating a painting and knowing it will be enjoyed in someone else’s home.
Mark is best known for his illuminated teepee paintings, which leave viewers in awe of the light they see, and a warmth they can almost feel, emanating from inside the structure depicted on the canvas. If they didn’t know better (and sometimes they don’t), people would think there is an actual light source behind the canvas creating that light, but in truth it is created with paint.
“It’s just a bunch of layers of glazing, is how I do it. And it’s ever evolving,” he said. “I am working on a couple of new techniques right now, but it’s just a matter of washes. Do an initial wash, let it dry, then maybe go over the upper parts so that they become darker so it looks like you have that fire down low.”
He makes it sound easy, but in fact, Mark said he has painted hundreds, maybe thousands, of teepees over the years, the first of which was created when he was just seven years old. It hangs in his studio to this day.
“I’ve been working on those darn things forever it seems like. It’s one of those things that you had a couple of ‘Aha!’ moments, like, ‘Oh, that looks real.’ So, there have just been little hints of things I should be doing along the way that got me to where I am,” he said.
Mark’s love of and talent for art is truly a family legacy. Adopted when he was a baby, Mark’s adoptive mother was an art lover and encouraged his artistic tendencies from his earliest years.
“My mother always loved art. It was her thing. Then I was that little child that loved to draw, and that was my hobby. So, she bought me oil paintings probably around third grade, and so I started painting a little bit and goofing around with that. So, every Christmas she would buy me art books and books about artists. Then when she could get them signed by artist, she would do that also,” he said. “It was always super fun. And then as I got older and became an artist, she traveled with me everywhere.”
Unfortunately, Mark’s mother passed away in 2011, but before she passed, she asked him if he wanted to meet his biological mother. Mark said for several years he struggled with that notion, but finally, around 2021, he did a DNA genealogy test and found his biological mom.
“I said, ‘Oh, my gosh. I betcha this is her,’” he said. “So, I called her two weeks later. She got back to me and said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve been waiting for this call for 56 years.’”
As he got to know his biological mother, Mark learned that she was, until recently, a teacher in the Crow Agency, the Crow Indian reservation located in Big Horn County, Montana. His biological father was an artist and his grandfather was a sign painter, by profession, and they all
hailed from New Mexico and Arizona.
One of the books that Mark’s adoptive mother gave him when he was a child was a collection of works by Henry Sharp, a noted painter of Native Americans of the Southwest and founding member of Taos Society of Artists. The TSA was an artists’ cooperative, established in 1915, which significantly contributed to the development of the small Taos artists’ community into the international art center it is now. Sharp’s work supplied the early inspiration for Mark’s teepees, which are now institutions in themselves.
“The whole reason I started painting teepees is just because I loved Sharp’s work. It was just intriguing to me,” he said. “Well, it turns out that my natural mom’s family were friends with all these Taos artists and they painted together in this kind of crazy, weird circle.”
Mark says he was always the kid who was drawing in school and that continued throughout high school and into his years at Montana State University, where he studied architecture. After almost completing the program, however, Mark realized that architecture, while creative, was not his calling.
“During that time I was getting down to the end and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t sit at a desk all day. There’s no way,’” he said.
So, Mark left MSU and headed for Seattle where he got a job in construction management and, later, a sales position in which he covered territory that included Wyoming, Montana and Idaho. He worked these jobs for a number of years and was painting just for fun to create gifts for friends and family. But he soon felt ready to take the next step. So, while on calls in his sales territory, he began to show his work to area galleries.
“So, I get these paintings and I put them in my truck and I go to the best gallery in Jackson Hole. I was so naïve. I look back on it and cringe like, ‘Oh my God I can’t believe I did that.’ But sometimes being dumb is bliss,” he said. “That was a turn-down from the first outing.”
Though his timing and approach may have lacked savvy, Mark said his friends encouraged him to keep pursuing art. When he left his sales job, his workmates gave him the gift of education:
they paid for a workshop, led by a prominent artist in Wyoming. He attended that workshop with a classmate from MSU, who was also an aspiring artist.
“So we went down and did the workshop together, and I think we had our own gallery about a month later in Missoula,” he said.
Mark and his friend made a go of the Missoula gallery for a few years, but when the economy took a downturn, they closed up shop. However, when one door closes, another one opens.
“Prior to [the gallery closing, MTG owner] Steve Zabel had seen my stuff, and so I was in Montana Trails Gallery, and they were really the first major gallery that I was in. So, it was
great. They started the whole thing off,” he said.
MTG assistant gallery manager, Sydney Weeks, said Mark’s paintings illicit a strong reaction with people who see them, mostly awe and appreciation of the talent it takes to achieve those effects.
“Mark is not only one of our best-selling artists, he is one of the nicest, most down-to-earth, people you could meet. People come in and are in awe of his work, because of his extraordinary technique and talent, but he’s so approachable and easy to work with,” said Weeks.
Mark says the family legacy of art lives on in his two children, though they are not currently working as painters. His daughter, Josie, is a makeup artist and esthetician, and his son, Cal, runs a thriving framing and construction company in Missoula. He said both of them showed artistic talent in school and speculated that they could start a later-in-life art career, as he did. In fact, instead of having his own painting above his mantle, Mark placed Cal’s third grade masterpiece in that place of honor. It’s called “Early Morning of Teepees.”
When asked what was the most challenging thing about being a working artist, Mark’s answer was, unsurprisingly, jovial yet pragmatic.
“Did you say starving artist? Yes, that’s the challenge,” he said. “Food on the table. Food on the table.”
While feeding one’s family can sometimes be at odds with maintaining unlimited artistic freedom, Mark doesn’t seem to mind occasionally forgoing a bit of creative autonomy in order to make a living doing what he loves. He knows that people love his teepees, and he has worked hard to develop this style, which has earned him such glowing praise. (Pun intended, in deference to Mark’s great sense of humor).
“Everybody asks me, ‘Are you sick of it?’ And I say, ‘No.’ I like to mix it up. I do other stuff as well, but these are the mainstay, and it’s usually what sells and it’s what people want. I am happy to do it. Happy to do it,” he said.
Mark says he doesn’t necessarily struggle for inspiration. He loves to paint, whether it’s tepees, figures or wildlife. He does find it challenging to consistently supply galleries with his work. His paintings, he says, take a long time, compared to some other artists, but with the help of his wife Lisa, also known as “Momager,” he is able to master the creative, administrative and commercial aspects of a successful career in art. And he is grateful for it.
“I feel so appreciative that …people allow me to do what I love to do. I will always strive to be better every time, and I’m continually learning. I hope they can see and appreciate it,” Mark said.
Whether you are a fan of Western art or just love to see talent on display, stop by downtown Bozeman and experience Mark’s work and the work of other accomplished artists at Montana Trails Gallery.
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