My husband said to me last night, "Wow, his death has really had a profound effect on you, hasn't it?" I replied, "yes, it really has," and I meant it. This was the twelfth day in a row I've managed to bring up Thomas Kinkade in general conversation. Which is absolutely absurd because I have loathed him intensly for at least fifteen years. From the very first stoney cottage at the end of a softly lit mossy path surrounded by a pastel garden, I recognized that everything he did was exactly opposite of what I was being taught in college. So naturally he was all wrong. But let me back up a little, like to when I was about eight years old.
Nothing could make me squirrel away pocket change and grandma's birthday dollar bills quicker than the thought of saving up to purchase new Lisa Frank unicorn and rainbow stickers for my sticker book. I was in sheer ecstasy when I received a purple sleeping bag with a gumball machine on the front, each brightly colored gumball perfectly highlighted in a way only Lisa Frank could highlight. Her name was scrawled across the bottom in big cursive letters.
As the sleeping bag went through several laundry cycles, and I continued to grow, the beloved sleeping bag eventually "disappeared." Along with it went my obsession with unicorns, rainbows, and gumball machines. Gone were the fluorescent pink socks and neon yellow plaid pants, replaced with aubergine dresses, oatmeal sweaters, and heather gray skirts. These new colors were elegant, understated, and grown-up. But that's what life is, right? Evolution!
Which is also what art college was like. Building up and breaking down to evolve into a mature artist. Hours at a time. Hours of critique. You think something you've done is brilliant, only to be torn to shreds by your peers. You don't hate them, you go grab a beer together at lunch (or at least WE did) to tough out the second half of critique . It's all to make you a better artist, and we "got" that. The biggest lesson I learned was that over the years even if the same subject matter wove in and out of your work, you learn not to stay stagnate. Work is always evolving. Which is why it was especially hard for me to do commission work when I first started painting.
I remember one commission where I was asked to recreate a painting I had done the previous year. I tried as hard as I could. And it came out looking like shit. My client wasn't happy. I gave him his money back. He asked me what happened, "why" was this so difficult. I tried to explain that I just wasn't in that place anymore. But he didn't get it. I was in a different place emotionally, not to mention I had vowed never to use pthalo blue directly out of the tube ever again.
But back to Thomas Kinkade...the critique in the "real" artists' circle is that he's a sell out, he's kitschy, he's a terrible painter but great at marketing...and even if I agree with the criticisms, I find that it is for a very different reason today. After he died, a family member stated he was an alcoholic because of all the criticism he received. As those of us with alcoholics in our lives know, this is an excuse. An alcoholic just is, there doesn't have to be a why. If he was admired by every fine artist in the world he still would have been an alcoholic. I read that he had an ego. But I could argue that he probably didn't really if he was an alcoholic. He painted saccharine paintings. Like candy coated rainbows, unicorns, and gumball machines. So if our paintings are expressions of ourselves, wouldn't that make him a pretty sweet guy? Following and leading others to the Word of God through his majestically lit paintings? Living in paradise as a millionaire? A painting can reveal a lot about an artist.
A few years ago I was rejected by a few agents representing children's book illustrators. "Your work is nice, but too dark." The colors? No, the subject matter. I was in a very cynical place at the time. Then I was rejected by a gallery for being too illustrative-go figure! That year when I was interviewed for Memphis Parent Magazine, I was asked to describe my work. She used the word "dark" again. I blurted out, "I paint dark so I can live light." Never had I spoken so honestly about my work, nor had a statement felt so true. My work was the release of my inner demons. So, what happens if you aren't the painter of dark, but "The Painter of Light?" What happens when you build your career and your entire brand around being "The Painter of Light?" What if you woke up in a pissy mood and just felt like splattering paint like Jackson Pollock? Or painting a nude self-portrait? Or a self-portrait with a monkey? Or both? What if you wanted to throw pottery instead? Was Thomas Kinkade stuck in a prison? As a drinker, he was already pretty dark. Did he drink because of his critics? Or because of his fans?
Nothing zaps my creative juices like being told what to paint. Last summer I had the wonderful opportunity to see Picasso's work in San Francisco as part of Gertrude Stein's collection on display. I was moved to tears. To watch the destruction of his photo-realistic portraits, the struggle and angst that went into pushing the boundaries so far that cubism popped out, was nothing short of miraculous. The portrait of Gertrude Stein, alone, is legendary, as we witness his struggle to paint her face. Beginning in his photo-realistic style, he begins to flatten her face until it resembles a mask. On this tour of his works we grow with him. We are invited into his evolution. Was he a great painter before cubism? Of course. But if he had painted exactly the same way year after year, using the same palette, he would have been vanilla. Instead, he was a banana split with pop rocks. Thomas Kinkade was tried and true vanilla. Never wavering. He was meticulous, consistent, and thorough. And a very hard worker. Was he a good painter? Technically speaking? Yes, he was. I suppose the real question is, was he a great artist? His fans and critics will debate this forever, I'm certain. To me, he was a painter that never evolved. His images were from a child's fantasy of a perfect world. What if his paintings, to him, were some form of PTSD, where he was stuck inside them? Like a loop on a skipping record? What if his life was like "Groundhog's Day" and he was caught on this self-imposed loop he couldn't escape? Maybe he wanted to paint something else but set himself up with a demand so strong that he was not allowed to bust out of his comfort zone. This alone would drive me to drink! To me, he is the embodiment of every artist's best dream and worst nightmare. His paintings never spoke to me. They still don't. But today the person does. And this is a Thomas Kinkade I can connect with. So, with that, I say RIP Painter of Light. May you find the joy yourself, that you brought to so many. And for all the struggling artists out there that long for their art to make them rich, be careful what you wish for!