Gilkey was born in Bellingham, WA in 1925. At age 17, Gilkey joined the Marine Corps and served in World War II. After returning from war he turned to art as a therapeutic outlet to deal with the horrors he witnessed. Never formally trained as an artist, Gilkey is considered to be one of the youngest members of the Northwest School of Masters, placing him in the notable company of Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves, and Mark Tobey. The somber paintings done by the Northwest Masters in the 1940’s and 1950’s brought national attention to the Seattle art scene.
Gilkey’s work was greatly influenced by Washington State’s Skagit Valley. His origins in this area and the beauty of the region are reflected in his paintings. Gilkey enjoyed nature and primarily painted outdoors before 1975, when he purchased and remodeled a studio house in the Skagit Flats. Over the course of his career, Gilkey developed a distinctive style that stimulated his intellectual curiosity. He sought out answers about the Universe that were scientific rather than philosophical, and material rather than metaphysical. Later in his career, Gilkey returned to painting abstractions, using black and white to represent the ancient Chinese philosophy of yin and yang.
Gilkey passed away in 1997, at the age of 72. His paintings are included in many museum collections of the Pacific Northwest, including the Seattle Art Museum. Gilkey also has work in many private and public collections, including King County Arts Commission, Seattle Times, and Swedish Hospital in Seattle. Richard Gilkey is also the recipient of several awards and distinctions, including Best in Show from the LaConner Arts Foundation (1983), and a Guggenheim Fellowship for Travel and Study Abroad (1958).