Blinded by the Light
Thomas Kinkade haters miss the point.
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
“Somebody loves this stuff,” Thomas Kinkade says. “The same question they asked about Elvis could be asked about me: Can 20 million fans be wrong?”
It’s a fair enough question, and one that will receive consideration momentarily. But one thing should be clarified first: Any Kinkade-Elvis Presley comparison is decidedly unfair.
There are probably some people out there who wake up to “Jailhouse Rock” every morning, but an estimated 14 million Americans find comfort in a Thomas Kinkade painting or piece of merchandise before they face their day.
Elvis once hung with Tricky Dick – a picture of a 35-year-old Elvis wearing a cape, an open-collared shirt and a garish belt buckle and shaking hands with Richard Nixon is the most requested item at the National Archives – but Kinkade repeatedly kicked it with the Clintons and has been invited to the White House by every administration since Reagan.
Elvis sold millions of records, but so has Milli Vanilli. “There’s been million-seller books and million-seller CDs,” Kinkade told 60 Minutes. “But there hasn’t been, until now, million-seller art.”
Presley paraphernalia is among the most profligate on the planet – who hasn’t wanted an Elvis nesting doll ($24.99 and climbing on eBay at press time) at some point – but as Morley Safer says, “you can put a Thomas Kinkade couch beneath your Thomas Kinkade painting. Next to the Thomas Kinkade couch goes the Thomas Kinkade end table. On top of that goes your collection of Thomas Kinkade books, Thomas Kinkade collectibles, Thomas Kinkade throw rugs. You can snuggle your Thomas Kinkade teddy bear.
“WE ELECTED A MAN WHO BUILT HIS CAMPAIGN AROUND HOPE. I’VE BEEN KNOWN AS THE ARTIST OF HOPE FOR YEARS.”
“You can put all of that inside your new Thomas Kinkade home in the Thomas Kinkade subdivision.” (For more on Kinkade items available in time for Christmas, see sidebar, this page.)
Besides, Elvis’ music never got him invited to the Vatican to play for the Pope. Pope John Paul II had Kinkade over to Italy to present a painting.
And, though Elvis revolutionized rock ‘n’ roll, Barack Hussein Obama, the biggest rock star the country has seen since, apparently takes his thematic cues not from Elvis or even the Bob Dylans, Jay-Zs or the Springsteens on his iPod, but rather from one Mr. Thomas Kinkade.
“We elected a man who built his campaign around hope,” Kinkade points out, while painting a landscape of Ireland that will make him more in presales than Elvis ever made on any performance. “I’ve been known as the artist of hope for years.”
Enough said. Elvis has left the discussion.The Painter of Light wanted to party on the Peninsula.
He was turning 50, so was Cannery Row, and his first feature film was coming out. Besides, he had long reserved a spot in his famously Downy-soft heart for the place that has become his second home.
The Placerville, Calif., native first started coming to the area while studying art at UC Berkeley. His first signature gallery – now there are 100 – appeared in Carmel May 4, 1992. Today Kinkade has outposts on Dolores and Ocean Avenue, and two on Cannery Row at Steinbeck Plaza and in the Plaza Hotel. The Thomas Kinkade National Archive occupies a tall, stately Victorian on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey.
Though his home and studio are tucked into the Santa Cruz Mountains and his corporate offices and the factory where his fleets of giclees are pumped out is headquartered in Morgan Hill, Kinkade says he divides his time between the north side of the Central Coast and Carmel, where he has a house on Scenic.
“We don’t take lightly our connection to Carmel,” Kinkade continues, speaking on behalf of his wife, Nanette, and his four kids. “There are Capitola people, then there are Carmel people. I’m definitely a Carmel person.”
But Kinkade says his connection dives much deeper.
“It is a part of my creative bloodstream,” he says. “It’s also in my emotional DNA. I need what Carmel and the Peninsula give me.”
One could argue that Carmel gave him his most celebrated weapon: The guy Safer called “a one-man cottage industry” (“you can find Candlelight Cottage, Twilight Cottage, Cottage by the Sea, Sweetheart Cottage, Foxglove Cottage, and Teacup Cottage,” the 60 Minutes veteran mused) calls Carmel the place that turned him on to cottages’ charms.
The two-day New Monterey birthday party demonstrated that the sugary strategy for success that has made Kinkade the most adored and abhorred painter on Mother Earth – lots of light, relentless sentimentality and plenty of incentive-laden opportunities to buy as many of his reproductions as possible – is still alive, well and sweet right up to the verge of stomach turning.
Christmas lights dripped from all edges at the National Archive where the party started; A Walk of Light at the ’50s birthday party at the Plaza Hotel bathed very rare works in perfect lighting.
At the Cannery Row IMAX theater, in front of serial Kinkade collectors (or, as they are called, “master collectors”) from all over the country and VIPs like the Sardine Factory’s Ted Balestreri and Bert Cutino, The Painter of Light called his kids “lightettes” and introduced the director, Michael Campus, to ready the audience for the freshly debuted DVD Thomas Kinkade’s Christmas Cottage.
“We wanted a film that was against the grain of Hollywood – explosions, special effects, body counts – to make a film that would really matter to everyone in this room and this country, heart and soul, to say the things that really matter: Hope over fear, joy over sorrow,” Campus said. “Family and faith over loss and loneliness. I think Thom says it better than anyone, ‘Love is truly the brightest light of all.’”
Soon Peter O’Toole was filling the screen as Kinkade’s mentor, Glen Wessler, saying, “Art isn’t about the artist. It’s about life, beauty, love, emotion that can topple tyranny.” Local film critic Richard von Busack read the mood of the film well when he called it “Hallmarkian.”
Earlier, Kinkade Gallery Manager Rick Barnett reminded the master collectors assembled of “the special incentives available to you this weekend.
“MORE THAN 10 PERCENT OF WALLS IN AMERICA HAVE A THOMAS KINKADE PAINTING ON THEM. WE’RE GOING FOR THE OTHER 90.”
“It’s a great opportunity to own something very unique and very rare,” he said. “There are points and special prizes when you buy paintings, and points can be redeemed for gifts.”
But the event offered intriguing evidence of something afoot beyond standard Kinkade saccharine content and relentless sales. In unleashing Kinkade in another medium – film – and serving as the jumping-off point of a tornado tour that will criss-cross the country and galvanize partnerships with pillars of American entertainment, it demonstrated that the Painter of Light and our culture are increasingly inseparable.The Painter of Light will smoke your favorite artist like the cheap cigars he claims to favor.
“He’s the most collected artist ever,” says Linda Mariano, the Thomas Kinkade Company’s polished vice president of marketing and licensing. It’s Friday night of his birthday-party weekend, not long after Barnett broke down the categories of paintings available: There’s nine different classes all told, and this weekend would feature a disproportionate amount of the limited categories like “gallery proofs,” “publisher proofs” and “Renaissance proofs.” She’s standing near a gaily lit gazebo behind the Christmas light-covered National Archive that could have been lifted from one of his paintings.
“He’s sold more prints than Monet, Picasso, Pissarro, Manet,” she says. “Go ahead. Make a list. He’s sold more than all of them.”
She pauses, leaning in with a conspiratorial eyebrow raise and an authoritative nod: “Combined.”
Kinkade’s Media Arts Group is the largest art-publishing house in the world. Kinkade sells more plein aires than anyone, alive or dead. His books number more than 120, including several New York Times bestsellers. At the Morgan Hill factory, specially designed equipment from Hewlett-Packard produces a higher quality reproduction giclees that, after being hand highlighted – a sharp art-for-the-masses marketing technique among many hatched by the Kinkade team – helped the company rake in $581 million in revenues from 1998-2002. (Since Kinkade paid $37 million to take his company private in ’03, more recent numbers are unavailable.)
Kinkade later summarized the company’s approach for the Weekly. “We have a two-word business plan: art everywhere. We want art everywhere,” he says. “We want Kinkade art everywhere. Everywhere there’s a wall, there’s a customer.”
“CALLING ME AN ARTIST IS LIKE CALLING WALT DISNEY A CARTOONIST – IT’S ACCURATE, BUT NOT COMPLETE.”
For those who find the ubiquity of Kinkade’s landscapes and cottages eerie enough, Team Kinkade’s awareness of just how many walls are out there for the filling increases the creepiness quotient that much more.
On seperate occasions, two Kinkade execs quote the number of walls in the average American home suitable for art (30).
“More than 10 percent of walls in America have a Thomas Kinkade painting on them,” Mariano says. “We’re going for the other 90.”
Then there are the other frontiers beyond the frame – note the Thomas Kinkade Light of Peace seven-piece wood box coaster sets, the Victorian Christmas hinged porcelain ring boxes and the Conquering The Storm Inspirational Magnet. The bestselling calendar in the country, Barnett adds, belongs to Kinkade.
“Licensing is a very important part of what we do,” Mariano says. “We create a range of products.”
Film is simply another frontier. While Kinkade says he is a big fan of the Coen brothers’ dark films, he pledges that his own movies will channel more Kinkadian glow. And the kitsch goes on: The closing scene from Christmas Cottage promises a sequel about how he met his beloved Nanette.
But his newfound film career and ever-widening harem of trinkets – Barnett says Kinkade is huge at the Porcelain Collectors Hall of Fame in Illinois – doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the canvas. Rather, he’s doubling down by inking deals with some of the most embedded brands in American culture.
He’s already in cahoots with Nascar and enjoys an automatic in with its 75 million fans – who purchase more than $3 billion annual in licensed products. He painted the 50th Daytona earlier in ’08 and sold well over $2 million in paintings.
But the biggest breakthrough might be the blockbuster deal he recently signed with Disney to create Timeless Disney Moments – his “Snow White and the Cottage,” released this fall, has already sold out 7,000 retouched prints at price points ranging from $50 to $50,000. Pinocchio is next; a huge party at Disneyland in March, and the re-release of Pinocchio, will help slingshot Kinkade sales. Mariano says a dozen Timeless Moments are planned all told.
These are big-ticket partnerships – U.S.-Israel, McDonald’s-Coke scale collaborations. And more and more, Mariano says, they are operating from an enviable position of power.
“They’re coming to us,” she says, “telling us what they’ll do for us rather than the other way around.”
The week after introducing the movie to local audiences – and giving Balestreri and Cutino a painting of Cannery Row – Kinkade leaped into a nonstop sequence of events littered with lucrative partnerships.
A week later, he surfaced at Indianapolis Speedway to start planning paintings of three centennial events over the next decade, including anniversaries of the speedway and the Indy 500. The week after that, he would be on-site painting the 50th anniversary of Christmas at Graceland. With each, he accessed audiences already nostalgic for a memory, another fertile section of Middle America to sink his teeth into.
Kinkade also started a Share the Light tour of 22 cities – he hit Peddlers, N.J, Myrtle Beach, Fla. and Phoenix, Ariz. in one weekend earlier this month – to talk about the new movie and unveil two of his newest holiday limited edition releases, “Christmas in New York” and “Christmas in Graceland,” in time for the holidays.
Mariano estimates up to 1,500 people meet him at each stop. As his empire expands, Kinkade wants to expand the function of his appearances.
“For me it’s not enough to just do the painting,” Kinkade says. “I get out to meet with people one on one and become a spokesperson for a set of ideals – home and family and faith – these are very real components of painting experience for them. They don’t just see a sunset, they see warmth and home and hope for the future.
“No doubt I’m a cultural spokesperson along the lines of Will Rogers. I tour around and give people hope. It’s not a role I sought out, but one people see in me.” Of course, critics see something else.Still, the Painter of Light has a point: Can 20 million people be wrong?
Those critics tend to agree upon an answer.
“His popularity is the product of a lack of art education,” according to Jane Flury, who teaches art at Pacific Grove Art Center. “We haven’t had good art education for 40 years.”
“He has a vocabulary, as most painters do. It’s a vocabulary of formulas, unfortunately,” Kenneth Baker, art critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has observed.
“He’s not marketing to an arts audience,” says Weekly arts critic Maureen Davidson.
But other analysts say that such critiques are beside the point.
“He has tapped into powerful personal and cultural longings,” Michael Clapper wrote in an award-winning piece for Smithsonian magazine. “In other words, whether his work is good or not, it is telling.”
In 2001, The New Yorker termed him “the most relevant artist in this culture.”
Given his cross-pollinating with everyone from the South’s deep reservoir of race car fans to the nation’s cartoon-intoxicated children, he’s become more than relevant to the culture, he’s become an arbiter of it.
Kinkade welcomes his role on the frontlines of the culture war – or as he told Clapper, “a battle between positive and negative cultural forces, if not quite good and evil.”
But while he battles on the side of the Light, Kinkade struggles with his own paradoxes.
In the same conversation he contends he’s transcended traditional definitions of art (“I’m a cultural communicator, not just an artist anymore. Calling me an artist is like calling Walt Disney a cartoonist – it’s accurate, but not complete”), he says people forget that he’s “just a painter who wants to create something with meaning.”
He knows how many walls the average American has in their house, but feels unfairly labeled “as the PT Barnum of art world: master showman, retail entrepreneur, business guru.”
He preaches a life of simplicity, but fans the flames of consumerism and completes complex tour schedules that would wither the Grateful Dead. (“I mean, we live in a commercial era and live in a materialistic world,” he says. “In one sense, if we lived life of utter simplicity, we wouldn’t collect anything.”; I’m not a hypocrite; sometimes I have to be in six cities in one day.”)
At one turn, he deflects the idea that his art carries religious themes: “I wouldn’t say my art is evangelical, it’s an art of hope and inspiration, it’s inclusive.” But he writes in Lightposts for Living: The Art of Choosing a Joyful Life that “I want to blanket the world with gospel through prints.”
He says, “I don’t like to be associated with elements that are judgmental and harsh and reactionist; I want to be associated with elements that are proactively seeking to make things better for all people.” In 2006, arbitrators, in a 2-to-1 ruling, found that Kinkade and other company officials used his Christian-oriented themes to create “a certain religious environment designed to instill a special relationship of trust” with now-divorced franchisees to help induce them to open a store.
There are other Kinkade signature inconsistencies. He is the poster boy for predictable, mass-produced art, and depends upon the most traveled artistic avenue, the landscape, for his living, but styles himself as a rebel in the art community – a William Wallace of the art world who has freed people to follow their hearts. “We’ve liberated people, given people permission to buy art they enjoy,” he says. “It’s OK to buy what you like.”
He says he doesn’t care if he isn’t considered an artist – “Fine, it’s not art, I’ll agree with critics, maybe call it cultural populist iconography” – then spends 5 minutes laying out how the Impressionists and Rockwells of the world, like him, were rejected by up-tight establishment in their time, to be celebrated later.
For all the professed simplicity and peace his paintings inspire, these are complex issues that provide little simple resolution. Similarly, plenty will disagree on whether 20 million people are all wrong – and could indefinitely debate whether he merits his popularity and profits.
Their time would be better spent examining what it says about our society, its values and its paradoxes. After all, as Kinkade says, popular art is “very good indicator of where our culture is.” More and more, for better or worse, it appears our culture is right where Kinkade wants it.