By Karen Holt, The Historic Examiner
Known for his magnificent paintings, Thomas Kinkade was born in Sacramento, California on January 19, 1958. He grew up near the former gold fields located in the Sierra foothills. When Thomas was five, his parents divorced. His father left and his mother worked as a secretary to support her three children. Theirs was the most run-down home on the street and the living standards were impoverished.
Though times were tough, Kinkade remembered his formative years as “rich in the greatest form of wealth; a nurturing and affirming love.” His family recognized in him a talent for art and strongly encouraged him to pursue it. Thomas dreamed of one day making his living utilizing this talent; earning enough money so he would never worry about bills and could provide his family a comfortable home.
The citizens of Placerville knew two sides of Thomas during his youth – the boy with crayons and the paperboy. He was also an avid swimmer and a loyal friend. Kinkade was continuously seen with the biography of a famous artist in his hand, normally a painter the likes of Norman Rockwell or Howard Pyle.
When Thomas was 11, he began his first apprenticeship. A local painter by the name of Charles Bell introduced his young novice to the basic techniques Thomas needed to master in order to become the painter he sought to be. That same year, Kinkade sold his first painting, for which he received $7.50. The woman he sold it to wisely realized this was a picture she should hold on to.
Kinkade was introduced to the modern works of the twentieth-century during high school when he met Glenn Wessels, formerly a professor in the University of California’s art department. Wessels recognized Kinkade’s talent and encouraged him to incorporate more emotion into his work. He also instructed his young student to experiment with personal forms of expression.
During his college years, Kinkade studied art history and studio art. He began to envision himself as an artist who would be a counterculture nonconformist, using his talent to create art which challenged and changed convention. It was through Wessels’ influence Kinkade enrolled in the University of California at Berkley.
Though Kinkade enrolled in Berkley with the utmost desire to learn and achieve, as he began classes, he was met head-on with a large dose of culture shock. Immediately he realized he had already achieved the rank of ‘nonconformist’ due to his dislike of the method of instruction employed by the art department. Kinkade recalled, “My professors would say art should be all about you. That’s a very self-centered approach.”
After a frustrating two years, Kinkade become conscious of the fact he was not a good fit for the environment which personified Berkley’s campus and transferred to the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. Here he entered an atmosphere of fierce competition. As iron sharpens iron, this environment pushed Kinkade to a level of intense development as he learned new techniques for creating various effects of mood and light. During this time, he was hired by the Ralph Bakshi Studios to help paint backgrounds. All total, Kinkade worked on 700 different ones for the animated film Fire and Ice. A year’s experience was all Thomas felt he needed.
Kinkade now began to explore a way to incorporate light into an imaginative world. It was during this time Thomas acquired his moniker, “The Painter of Light.” Though he protected his title with a trademark, he was not the first to utilize the phrase. English artist J. M. W. Turner, who lived from 1775 to 1851, found the statement to be rather descriptive of himself as well. Kinkade’s stated his use of light is to symbolize the divine. "With whatever talent and resources I have, I try to bring light to penetrate the darkness many people feel."
Between the years 1984 and 1989, Kinkade took his work in a whole different direction. Assuming the brush name ‘Robert Girrard,’ Kinkade began to experiment with impressionism in an effort to express artistic freedom. Few artists are blessed with the talent to create paintings within more than one artistic style, but Kinkade definitely could.
While in his lean years, Kinkade embraced the Christian faith. This influence was seen not only in Kinkade’s life, but also his art. As Thomas continued to refine his craft, he embarked on a style which was simple and soothing; resulting in masterpieces to beautifully adorned the wall of a gracious living room or a cozy den. His work softly depicted a colorful garden, a churning seascape or a favorite of many – a cottage or church embodying a wholesome theme in tranquil and romantic scenes, with light-filled windows which beckoned the viewer's imagination to enter and feel welcomed.
Kinkade’s vision and style would pay off handsomely. His business evolved into franchised galleries which sold reproductions of his beautiful work in numerous sizes, framed in ornate or simple styles. Sales from the galleries reached upwards of $100 million each year and before long, his work graced 10+ million homes. In time, Kinkade’s art empire would also include such items as calendars, greeting cards, books, Bible covers, collector plates and figurines. The more popular his work became, the more he pressed on.
Though many within the art establishment would deride this beloved painter for appealing in so brazen a manner to the widest possible audience, Kinkade learned to roll with the punches and embraced his popularity. Artist Jeffrey Vallance hosted a showing of Kinkade’s work in 2004 and stated, “In their minds, he represented the lowest type of art. He was different from other artists. You kind of felt like he was giving people what they wanted. It is clear that everyday people need an art they can enjoy, believe in and understand.”
Michael Darling, chief curator of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art is an example of those Vallance describes. Darling stated, "I think the reason you probably aren't going to find his work in many museums, if any, is that there really wasn't anything very innovative about what he was doing... I really think that he didn't bring anything new to art."
Many in the art community also scorned Kinkade over the fact he sold reproductions of his work instead of originals. They felt rather than buying the ‘real thing,’ the customer instead walked away with something made by a machine. Those who love Kinkade’s work see things different. The San Jose Mercury News reported that a minimum of one piece of Kincade's work hangs in approximately one out of every 20 homes in the United States.
The catalog from his 2004 California show included a comment by Kinkade responding to his critics in which he stated he did not look down upon any type of art. "As to the myriads of products that have been developed from my paintings, I can only state that I have always had the attitude that art in whatever format it is accessible to people is good. All forms of art reproduction have meaning to some body of people."
No great artist, be they Ludwig von Beethoven, Walt Disney, Kevin Carter or Thomas Kinkade is without problems in his/her life. For Kinkade, several personal difficulties confronted him in recent years. In 2010, one of his companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy following a court award of $3 million resulting from a lawsuit brought by Virginia couple Jeff Spinello and Karen Hazlewood. According to the Los Angeles Times, the couple, former owners of a gallery, stated Kinkade fraudulently persuaded them to invest in a licensed facility. The couple declared the prices they were required to sell their inventory for were undercut by discount sellers and they were unable to compete due to the terms of their contract. The judge ruled in their favor. Additional lawsuits followed in the wake of this one as a number of other Kinkade galleries failed between the years of 1997 and 2005.
After learning the news of Kinkade’s death, Ester Wells, gallery director at the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery in Pismo Beach, California stated, “We’re going to lose a great artist to the world, but we’ll never forget him.” She believes Kinkade will be remembered in much the same way as Norman Rockwell. Gallery owner, Richard Smith, has known Kinkade personally since the mid-1990s. “A lot of people want to trash Tom. Let them. As far as what Thom Kinkade means to me, he was really good to me.” In reference to the reason why Kinkade’s work is displayed in so many American homes, Smith states, “Some people think its marketing. I don’t believe any of that. I think Thom just has a gift. He paints the good, and he doesn’t paint the negative. Thom paints happy scenes; he paints scenes that people want to go to.”
Kinkade should also be remembered, not only as a commercially successful artist, but also as one who raised millions for charity by auctioning his works. The Thomas Kinkade Foundation serves and supports non-profit organizations focusing on children, humanitarian relief, and the arts. Chosen as a National Spokesman for the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Thomas Kinkade raised over $150,000 for the organization. His involvement in such groups, along with his appearances on 60 Minutes and Good Morning America, is testimony to the fact that Thomas Kinkade's artwork has touched hearts the world over.
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What I paint touches on foundational life values - home, family, peacefulness. And one of the messages I try to constantly get across is slow it down and enjoy every moment.