Gary Wilks is a firm believer in being at the right place, at the right time.
It also doesn’t hurt when a superstar like Lady Gaga compliments your work and posts it on her Instagram account.
But let’s not get too far ahead in a story that defies imagination, a tale that is so inspirational that it proves fact is stranger than fiction.
Let’s go back to 1976 when a kid from Raytown High School was working on the Kansas City Royals ground crew.
While Wilks befriended many of the Royals, who would win their first division championship that season, he was enchanted by the wide array of art that appeared at the stadium.
While an artist named Bob Huggins – remember that name – was painting a tri-vision (a sign that rotates and features three images) in the outfield, Wilks was mesmerized.
“I just stopped and watched him paint that sign and I said to myself, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Wilks left the ground crew in 1980, and over that four-year period, his love of art burned with a passion that would lead to the type of success he could never dream of in his teens.
He eventually went to work for Calvin Sign in Kansas City.
“I think they hired me to keep me from calling and bugging them all the time,” chuckled Wilks, as he sat in the studio inside his Lee’s Summit home, surrounded by larger-than-life paintings of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, Marilyn Monroe and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
He spent eight years at Calvin Sign, working on billboards, lettering doors and windows of office buildings and fine tuning and honing the portraits that would soon be his claim to fame.
He heard of an opening at Gannett Outdoor, the largest outdoor advertising firm in North America. Ironically, he replaced Huggins, who unknowingly inspired the young artist nearly a decade earlier.
“My first billboard was the Converse billboard downtown leading up to KU being in the Final Four in 1988,” Wilks said, “and I was so stoked.”
After seven years at Gannett, he caught word of this newfangled computer printing taking over the outdoor sign business.
“So I made a beeline over to Acme Sign, and that was pretty amazing,” Wilks said. “We did the templates for the NFL playing surfaces and the 1996 Olympics. We even created the Struttin’ Man statue that is in front of the Gates Bar-B-Q offices in ... Kansas City.”
“We did a little bit of everything, and I loved it.”
But the best was yet to come.
A salesperson from Acme was working with a new account, the Sprint Center, and someone from the new venue asked if anyone at Acme did portraits.
This is the right place, right time portion of Wilks’ career.
“It was 2008 and our salesperson came back to Acme and asked me if I wanted to do some portraits for the Sprint Center,” Wilks said, “and I said sure. I had NO IDEA what it would turn into, what it would mean for me and my family.”
Speaking of family, Wilks married his high school sweetheart Rhonda, who attended Van Horn High School, and they have three daughters – Dana and Brynne, who graduated from William Chrisman High School and Michaela, a Blue Springs South grad.
“So I started doing the portraits and my friend, a great Independence artist named Greg Price, who does all the layout and graphics on the portraits,” Wilks said. “And I am proud to say, I have never missed a deadline. And I still charge the same price I did when I started 11 years ago.”
In the backstage area and on the suite level, signed portraits of Elton John and Garth Brooks – the two performers who opened the arena in 2008 – can be found alongside portraits of Billy Joel, Roger Waters, Tom Petty, Def Leppard, Drake, Stevie Wonder and Lady Gaga.
“This gets pretty interesting,” Wilks said. “I got an email last year from the Sprint Center saying that last year would be the last time they would need my portraits. I was disappointed, but I thought, ‘Heck, it was a great run and I had a lot of fun.’
“Then, Lady Gaga posted a picture of her, with my portrait, on her Instagram account, and talked about how much she liked it.”
Soon, the Sprint Center crew sent Wilks a second email, saying that they wanted him to continue. Sitting in his office, waiting to be delivered to the Sprint Center, is a portrait of Thomas Rhett, whose Very Hot Summer Tour is coming to town, along with a group painting of the Backstreet Boys.
“The painting of the Backstreet Boys will be No. 300,” Wilks said. “Man, 300. That’s pretty amazing.”
Wilks is now a full-time artist and his commissions include family portraits, brides, entertainers – he just finished a five-foot tall black-and-white study of guitar legend Stevie Ray Vaughn – and athletes.
Steve Rowley commissioned his friend to do a Mahomes piece that was auctioned off for more than $30,000 – which included the original, artist proofs and limited-edition prints.
“We raised over $300,000 at Tomstock 2019,” Rowley said, referring to the sixth annual event that has raised more than $1 million for the H8 Cancer Foundation, “and Gary’s painting and the prints of the piece he did of Patrick Mahomes accounted for about 10 percent of the total. His work is amazing, and once we showed everyone there the original, we sold out of the raffle tickets.”
That figure staggers Wilks’ imagination.
“I can’t believe it made that type of impact,” said Wilks
Wilks work will be featured in the Lee’s Summit Art Fair, Oct. 11-13, and he always ready to visit with a potential customer who wants something special to dress up a family room.
“I have never been happier,” Wilks said. “I’m doing what I love, I’m working out of my home, and I hope I’m creating art that will really inspire people.”