Don Gill's Unorthodox Art Career

Gill’s success comes from doing things in his own style.

Amelia Nielson-Stowell May 1, 2017

Don Gill’s first memory of drawing was in the Sawtooth National Forest high above his hometown of Gooding, Idaho. His father was the manager of a cattle ranch and brought Gill and his two younger brothers to the camp every summer. There was no electricity and certainly no TV, so during the evenings, Gill would doodle.

“I can’t explain why I love drawing. It’s something I was born with, I guess,” Gill says. “I’m not really a portrait artist but like drawing any western stuff — horses, cows, dogs, anything with hair — my favorite things to draw are animals.”

From Doodles to Cowboy Artist

Gill’s art talent was discovered at age 14 when Baxter Black spotted one of Gill’s drawings that his uncle tacked to the wall of the Simplot Company. Black was a veterinarian and manager of the feedlot, and he hired Gill to draw calendars for the company.

That chance glimpse of Gill’s art was a landmark point in his career — Black later became a famous cowboy poet, and when he needed an artist to adorn his books, he knew who to call.

“He (Gill) illustrates my thoughts better than I can think them up,” Black says. “I have respect for western art and sculpture, but they are in a rarefied stratosphere of their own. Cowboy cartoons (like Gill’s) are for everyone. They are stuck up in barns, sheds, bathrooms, dashboards, refrigerators and feedlot offices like the one where I first saw Don’s drawing. … We’ve been together ever since.”

Unorthodox Art Career

Long before Black became famous for his dynamic western stories, Gill was offered a full ride scholarship to attend art school in Colorado. Black encouraged Gill not to go, telling him that a school would teach him how to draw their way, and Gill would lose his unique style. The advice turned out to be invaluable.

Gill stayed in Gooding, occasionally displaying his work at art shows, but mostly making his living off commissions. Outside of the roughly 20 books he’s done with Black (“Tinsel, Mistletoe & Reindeer Bait” is the latest), he’s drawn annual holiday cards for POWER Engineers customers; designed a T-Shirt for Jeff Foxworthy’s restaurant in Kissimmee, Florida; created Western characters for a TV cartoon show; and sketched covers for redneck books and western CDs.

“I’m so happy I didn’t go to art school,” Gill says. “I was unorthodox compared to others who did school, and I’ve done just as well as them.”

Managing Gooding’s Famous Rodeo

Outside of being a proud dad to five kids, Gill is proud of Gooding’s rodeo. He’s been manager of the Gooding County Fair and the Gooding Pro Rodeo for the past 20 years It’s one of the best in the country because it’s self-produced. Gill hires numerous stock contractors to bring their top stock, so cowboys are competing with the best animal athletes.

One of his most unique commissions came from his job there. When he first started, horses would constantly run into the arena walls because they blended in with the dirt. His daughter suggested painting the walls. Gill, a former team roper, painted the 600-foot concrete wall like an ornate leather tool belt.

Gill’s success comes from doing things in his own style. Today you won’t see Gill at art shows or even find his drawings on a website, but you’ll still find him at home in the evenings, pencil in hand, sketching a bucking horse. Just like he did when he was a kid.

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