The Times Magazine, 2002
The Most Popular Artist In The World: He has 350 dedicated galleries in the USA alone, his annual turnover exceeds half a billion dollars and he’s personally richer than every other artist in the top ten put together. But he’s never won over the critics. Sanjiv Bhattacharya went to visit the famous ‘painter of light’ at his northern California studio.
Note: I wrote this piece for the Times magazine in 2002, but they chose not to run the piece in the end so this interview has never seen the light of day. Not until now – ten years later – when I read, with sadness, that Thomas Kinkade has died. He passed away, of a cocktail of chemicals by all accounts, on April 6th, 2012 at the young age of 54.
Thomas Kinkade, America’s most popular artist, is in his studio in San Jose, Northern California, preparing to unveil his latest work-in-progress, entitled simply “Daffodil Cottage”.
“What I did was take a snapshot of the cottage and then put it on the computer,” he explains. “Then I made a huge print of it and put the colours right on top! Want to see?” He whips away the screen to reveal a painting of, well, a cottage with daffodils all over the place.
Kinkade has knocked out hundreds of cottages in his time, most of them cute and thatched, like this. Awash with gentle pastels on a perfect day’s bloom, it’s an idyllic rendition, a misty-eyed, Hallmark romance of a cottage – suspiciously perfect, sweet as puppies and eminently forgettable. The kind of painting you’d expect from a precious old dear lost in her nostalgia for country living, not this burly barrel of a man with arms like hams, a cocked ten gallon and cowboy boots. Were it not for the pursed twirl on his bushy moustache, you’d never guess that the most collected artist in America could draw at all.
“Why the daffodils?” I ask.
“I thought I’d make a kinda early summery, late spring kinda deal,” he says, shrugging. “It looks nice don’t you think?” Jammed into his easel is a picture of a daffodil torn from a catalogue he picked up at a garden centre.
Now 43, Thomas Kinkade has sold a staggering 10 million pictures. Pictures, you note, not paintings, because he only sells copies or, with the flattery of marketing, ‘limited edition prints’. Nonetheless he is far and away the biggest (and richest) artist in the USA, outselling by some distance the rest of the top ten put together. Of course he can’t help but drum home quite how far ahead of the pack he is, but who can blame him? He began as a humble background painter for the movie business. And now, he’s a phenomenon whose stats are strewn with superlatives and zeros.
For example, over the last 15 years he has built the largest art-based company in the history of the world. The Media Arts Group, which sells all of his “art-based product” (as even he describes it), has been listed on the New York Stock Exchange since 1994, and last year posted sales of $140m, 95% of which was Kinkade product alone. Kinkade himself personally sold $4m worth during three hours on QVC, the Shopping Channel. He has 350 dedicated galleries in the USA, a presence in 1 in 20 American homes, and when asked what kind of turnover he expects this year, he turns to his retail manager Rick. “About half a billion?” he asks. “Yeah, roughly half a billion.” Which has to be a record for a man at an easel.
In 2002 his attentions turn to the British consumer. Already “Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries” have cropped up in Glasgow, city of culture, a mall in Solihull, the Bluewater in Dartford and leafy Chiswick. Edinburgh, Nottingham and the Cotswolds are under construction and plans are pending on 15 further sites including Manchester and Newcastle. Look out for one at a mall near you. “Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light” the sign will say, and it’ll be full of people who’ve never bought any art before but fancy a cosy, cutesy print for the mantlepiece.
I visited one such “Signature Gallery” in the chintzy, marzipan village of Carmel by the sea, a self-styled “art community” in northern California, and Kinkade’s spiritual home. Highgate at its quaintest doesn’t come close to this smug cluster of tea shops and tourists, polished cobbles, mock Tudor pubs and endless bijou galleries, each one crammed with the dreadful landscape painting of retired hobbyists. Carmel’s charms – its golf, picture-perfect hills and views of the Pacific – have attracted the likes of Arnold Palmer and Clint Eastwood, who was once elected mayor. For Kinkade, however, Carmel is a muse. He found “Daffodil Cottage” in Carmel.
The Gallery, one of several exclusive outlets in Carmel, was stocked with standard-issue Kinkades – mawkish renderings of impossible rustic utopias, of sun-dappled this and glowing-hearth that, babbling brooks, sunsets and gardens in bloom. His style is so sentimental, his painterly touch so soft and wistful, that as much as his scenes resemble reality – all be it the reality of a garden centre tear-sheet – they also suggest the fantastical, a Trixibelle realm less suited to the happy families he depicts, as to faeries, elves and hobbits. He seems to select his subjects through the prisms of nostalgia and pastoral perfection. Hence the thatched cottage fetish and titles such as “A perfect red rose”, “A perfect yellow rose”, “A perfect summer day” and even, “It doesn’t get much better”.
“I paint a mythology of simpler living,” explains Kinkade. “What I have created is a form of iconography that estabishes certain foundational life values. Things like family, home, community, the beauty of nature, faith in God, the romance of experience. My paintings are silent messengers of peace joy, love and hope in the home, they are a comfort for people whose lives are increasingly harried.”
Which may indeed be true for millions of consumers, but there remains something disturbing about Kinkade’s vision. His use of light, for example. A born-again Christian who saw the light 20 years ago, Kinkade has trademarked the name “Painter of Light” and he takes his title literally. Every light in every one of his paintings is on and glowing brightly – every room in every house, every headlamp and streetlamp. It lends his work a spooky, Stepford quality, that is only enhanced by the way his staff answer the phone at MAG: “thank you for sharing the light!”
Yet for all the restrictions he imposes upon his art – the ever-burning lights, the feelgood, downhome retrograde bucolic style– Kinkade sees no boundaries in the marketing of his brand. Indeed he is taking unprecedented steps. Not only does he deal in reproductions rather than originals, to the endless scorn of his peers, but he has a swelling roster of licencees, 70 at the last count, whose wares are available through over 5,000 retail outlets in the USA – everything from teddy bears to couches, blankets to books, puzzles, mugs, recliners, nightlights, calendars, figurines, glassware, mousemats and much more.
“Hallmark, Avon, huge companies, they all have Kinkade lines,” says the artist. “You see, the paintings are a world of the imagination so we asked ‘what would populate that world’? We’ve had furniture designers create a rustic furniture collection, a cottagey collection and a manor-house thing….”
Bar the furniture, you can find a similar range of “art-based product” in Solihull, too – though the town may be a far cry from Carmel, the Signature Gallery is virtually identical. Alongside the art, there are plates and jigsaws and notebooks and all sorts – and they appear to be selling rather well. One would have thought that Britain would be a tough market to crack – after all this is the land of the Turner prize, of the Tate not tat and of sneering critics. We’re not nearly so credulous as the Americans are we? Our tastes are sharper, more ironic surely? Besides, the typical Kinkadean cottage has been shamelessly plucked from the Cotswolds – surely we won’t allow an American to sell us our own scenery?
But the Kinkade line has caught on, no question, particularly among the middle aged to elderly “collector” (ages 35-60 are Kinkade’s most lucrative demographic). Last year, without even the push of a marketing campaign, the UK market exceeded all expectations, yielding a turnover of £1.2m. This year, with a proposed visit by Kinkade to drum up interest, his UK representation confidently expects to break £1.5m.
For all his expansionist capitalism, Kinkade makes much of being a simple rancher at heart. He describes his art as “a clarion call to earlier modes of living.” He likes to ride his cycle into town. “It’s important to slow down a little, you see. The way so many of us live, the real things in life are getting replaced by vicarious substitutes.” He even cites September 11th as a reminder that “our endlessly complexifying electronic consumer culture is spinning out of control”. Which is an odd view for someone whom e-culture seems to be serving so well – after all, this is “thomaskinkade.com” we are talking about, a man with his own line in mousemats.
“Look, some of these products I don’t even use,” he counters. “I’m not computer literate myself. I have never surfed the net. I don’t even have a TV!” Yet he thinks nothing of appearing on the shopping channel to hawk his product. “There are ironies, you’re right. But they are not ironies of compromise, they’re decisions you have to make to survive as a business. I employ 400 people.”
The Kinkade brand is so popular that some people are even taking out mortgages to buy into it. Taylor-Woodrow has recently built 31 Kinkade-line houses around a golf course in the Napa valley, and of this first batch – a further 70 are due over the next two years – only seven remain to be sold. Their prices range from $360,000 to just under $500,000, depending on which of the four versions you prefer – Chandler, Everett, Merritt or Windsor (each floorplan is named after one of Kinkade’s daughters. “There are so many other products we could extend into,” says Kinkade with a sweep of the arm. “Our brand extensions are the home, family and faith, which is pretty much everything! We have education products, my wife and I have just finished the Thomas Kinkade guide to a happy marriage…” It’s the Martha Stewart effect. In fact, if Martha Stewart could paint, Kinkade would have some competition.
“You know what?” he laughs, “I’ve even heard people talk about Kinkadean wineries and such like. I’ve become an adjective!”
Inevitably, the art establishment is scathing of America’s most popular painter – that is, when it pays him any attention at all. The two have been engaged in an ongoing, often unsavoury spat for years now, and it has made Kinkade a tireless and frustrated defender of his work. Get him going and he’ll talk forever about the perversion of modern art, the demise of technique and its replacement with individualism, how the art world is an elitist microculture and only he, Thomas Kinkade, truly paints for the people. He is an articulate speaker, but without the discipline of return fire he tends to bluster and roam somewhat, often into unfettered grandiosity that is so off-beam it becomes comical. He’s like a challenger in the ring, demonstrating his finest flurries and taunting his opposition to take him on. But he is the only one in the ring, let alone the stadium.
His tirade began with a plea for the reinstatement of art in popular culture. “Every culture has enshrined art as the magnificence of thought, expression and beauty,” he said, “except our one. During the high Renaissance, artists were dignitaries within popular culture and people would enshrine them as semi-deities. They used to call Leonardo, La Divina, literally ‘the divine Leonardo’. Art was the touchstone of common aspirations… ” etc etc. It’s a fair point, and well made, until you realise that he’s including Daffodil Cottage alongside The Last Supper.
He roughhoused his contemporaries – “what’s Robert Rauschenberg’s Q rating?” – and wielding his popularity like a crowbar, he even beat up on Forrest Gump. “How many people saw Forrest Gump today? Not 10 million, I can tell you that. I’ve got something much more powerful to offer than any filmmaker and that is, I own the home, I own the walls. Case closed!”
He slammed the nihilism and deviance of modern art, blaming, as ever, “the critics and self-proclaimed experts”. He poured scorn on Pollock, “that artist who makes things with broken glass” and he even offered Tracey Emin to go a couple of rounds. “Who’s that woman with the unmade bed? Oh boy, I’d love to argue with her.” Yet, bizarrely, he went on to claim kinship with Warhol, a fellow populist. “I like Warhol, he created a sense that his canvas is the culture. And the critics don’t recognise it but that’s exactly what I’m doing.” William Blake also had certain Kinkadean aspects. “He was just another guy who loved God and did his own thing.”
Perhaps his boldest moment was a comparison between his art and the parables of Jesus since they both “communicate divine truth to the common man”. To imply such a noble calling for the rampant exploitation of a brand is akin to the CEO of McDonalds citing the feeding of the five thousand. Besides, his art is littered with self-interest – it is a Kinkade trademark to hide his wife Nanette’s initial up to 150 times in every painting and at the foot of each piece, beside his name, is the final tally. So much for divine truth – Kinkade turns every painting into a game of “find the N’s”, a game that his fans, not being art fans as such, delight in.
Nonetheless, a curious figure emerged from his ramble. A simple 43-year old man from a broken home in north California who produces art for people who don’t really like art – 80% of Kinkade’s consumers have never bought art before. A Christian clinging to a dubious divine purpose, despite his shameless pursuit of profit, and a man so entrenched in his brand that he often refers to himself by name rather than pronoun. Yet he can never live up to his hype. Despite being “an advocate of personal serenity” he admits to enjoying such un-Kinkadean past-times, as watching disaster movies. He likes the work of Kubrick and Scorsese and he often watches kung fu flicks as he works: “I like the shallow interconnected scenes of violence”. He also listens to audiobooks as he paints, getting through two a week – he is currently listening to Peter Ackroyd’s biography of William Blake. All of which makes for a bizarre image of the artist at work – a heavy set rancher painting a dinky, tinkerbell cottage from pages torn from a magazine, while watching kung fu films, listening to a biography of a truly great artist, all the while keeping a tally of the number of N’s he sneaks into his canvas.
Yet most of all, Kinkade appears to be a self-made man, modest at heart, struggling to make sense of his own success, and not least, what to do next. “I feel as though I have a cultural impetus,” he says to himself, as much as anyone. “Any man who achieves this kind of leadership is a man of his time. My life exudes an expectation destiny that I didn’t anticipate…” Since he doesn’t quite understand his popularity, he gropes for answers in the loftiest places, citing the greatest painters as his antecedents and envisioning his own legacy with the same yearning as he depicts his cottages.
The painter whom he most identifies with – da Vinci, Blake and Warhol aside – is Norman Rockwell who painted sentimental, disposable covers for the Saturday Evening Post magazine during the war years and, although ignored during his day, now enjoys a dedicated museum in Stockbridge, and, finally, critical praise. Kinkade adores Rockwell and dreams of critical praise. He mentions Rockwell’s most famous series, the Four Freedoms, which “became an identity point for the average American who was asking the question, why are we fighting the war?” Yet when I mention that America is again at war and he is painting cottages, he retreats into a shroud of verbiage about iconography and being a beacon of light in dark times.
Throughout his career, Rockwell would moan: “People tell me, ‘I don’t know anything about art but I love your stuff’. I wish they’d say the opposite: ‘I know a lot about art and I love your stuff.’” So for Kinkade, who, much as he hates to admit it, is desperate for critical recognition – to be hailed as the Painter of Light, not decried as the purveyor of Art-Lite.
“What is Thomas Kinkade to a critic 100 years from now?” he asks, rhetorically. “He’s this amazing expression of anti-angst – the angst of a culture gone haywire with the frenzy of daily living, and the internet and the bombardment of the media.”