Art for Everybody

by Susan Orlean
The New Yorker
October 15, 2001

One recent sultry afternoon, inside the Bridgewater Commons mall, in central New Jersey, across from The Limited, down the hall from a Starbucks, next door to the Colorado Pen Company, and just below Everything Yogurt, a woman named Glenda Parker was making a priceless family heirloom for a young couple and their kid. This was taking place in the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery, a plush and flatteringly illuminated, independently owned, branded distribution channel for the art-based products of America's most profitable artist, Thomas Kinkade. The young couple were from a moderately priced gated community not far from the mall, and they were bashful and pleased because they had never bought a family heirloom before. Also, they had never bought a painting before. Actually, they still hadn't bought a painting, since what they were buying was not a painting per se but a fifteen-hundred-dollar lithographic reproduction of a Thomas Kinkade painting, printed on textured-brushstroke canvas with an auto-pen Kinkade signature in the lower right-hand corner.

This was not an ordinary day at the gallery: it was a Master Highlighter Event, a two-day guest appearance by one of Kinkade's specially trained assistants, who would highlight any picture bought during the event for free. Highlighting a picture is not that different from highlighting your hair: it entails stippling tiny bright dots of paint on the picture to give it more texture and luminescence. The customer could sit with the highlighter and watch the process, and even make requests -- for a little more pink in the rosebushes, say, or a bit more green on the trees. Some highlighter -- Glenda was one -- would even let the customers dab some paint on the picture themselves, so it would be truly one-of-a-kind.

"Is this your first Kinkade?" Glenda asked the young woman. They were sitting in front of a large easel, on which the couple's picture had been propped. Beside Glenda was a digital kitchen timer, which she had set for the highlighting time limit of fifteen minutes, and a Lucite palette heaped with small blobs of oil paint.

"Yes," the woman said. "It's our first."

"Well, congratulations," Glenda said. She smiled warmly.

"My grandmother just passed away," the young woman said. "The money she left for me -- it wasn't quite enough to invest, but I didn't want it to just disappear. My sister also inherited money from my grandmother, and she bought a Kinkade, too."

"Well, that's wonderful," Glenda said. "You picked a great one."

"I just wish I'd heard of him sooner," the young woman said, twisting a piece of her hair. "There are so many that I love now that are already sold out."

"Oh, yes, that does happen," Glenda said. She dotted some white paint on the underside of a cloud.

"I can't believe I never knew anything about Thomas Kinkade before this," the woman went on. "I had passed the gallery before, but I didn't really know anything about it or about how...huge he is. I mean, he's just this really huge thing! It's almost like a whole world."

The painting that the young couple bought was called "Evening Majesty." It is one of Kinkade's most popular images. It features mountains and quiet shadows and the purple cloak of sunset, but it could just as easily have featured a lavishly blooming garden at twilight, or maybe a babbling brook spanned by a quaint stone bridge, or a lighthouse after a storm; it's hard to distinguish one Kinkade from the next, because their effect is so unvarying -- smooth and warm and romantic, not quite fantastical but not quite real, more of a wishful and inaccurate rendering of what the world looks like, as if painted by someone who hadn't been outside in a long time. In a Kinkade painting, if there is a bridge or a road or a gate (as there often is, since Kinkade likes visual devices that carry you into the picture frame) the bridge or the road or the gate is finely detailed, and the burr on the cobblestone or the grain in the brick is so precise it could have been drawn with a whisker. But every edge and corner is also slightly softened, as if someone had stuck it in an oven or left it in the sun. The effect is wee and precious -- the cottages look as if they had been built out of cookie dough and roofed with butter cream, more suited to elves or mice than to human beings. Even big things, like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Yosemite Valley, look tiny and darling, like toys.

Kinkade's paintings are filled with lampposts and windows and images of the sun, and the lampposts are always lit, the windows are always illuminated, the sun usually in a dramatic moment of rising or setting. Light is Kinkade's hallmark. His pictures have a weird glow even in dim settings. If you go to a Kinkade gallery, you will be taken into a special room where the picture you're interested in will be shown to you under bright light and then the light will be slowly turned down, and, as it gets darker, the dark areas of the painting will get lighter, an effect Kinkade has said is produced by layering the paint on the canvas. Kinkade has trademarked the slogan "Painter of Light," and receptionists at Media Arts Group, in California, the company that produces all Kinkade art-based products, answer the phone, "Thank you for sharing the light!"

By and large, art critics consider Thomas Kinkade a commercial hack whose work is mawkish and suspiciously fluorescent, and whose genius is not for art but for marketing -- for creating an "editions pyramid" of his prints, each level up a little more expensive, which whips up collectors' appetites the way retiring Beanie Babies did. This view annoys Kinkade no end, and he will talk your ear off -- even talk through the company's strictly enforced one-hour interview limit -- about the ugliness and nihilism of modern art and its irrelevance compared to the life-affirming populism of his work. He will point out that he has built the largest art-based company in the history of the world, and that ten million people have purchased a Kinkade product, at one of three hundred and fifty Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries that carry his limited-edition prints, or through his Web site, or at one of the five thousand retail outlets that sell Kinkade-licensed products, including cards, puzzles, mugs, blankets, books, La-Z-Boys, accessory pieces, calendars, and night-lights. Last year, Media Arts Group had a hundred and thirty-two million dollars in revenues. It has been traded -- first on the Nasdaq, then on the New York Stock Exchange -- since 1994, making Kinkade the only artist to be a small-cap equity issue. He owns thirty-seven per cent of the company, which makes him, by his calculations, one of the wealthiest artists in the world.

Kinkade is forty-three years old. He has short, brushy brown hair, a short, brushy brown mustache, a chest as broad as a beer keg, and a leisurely and booming laugh. If you see his paintings before you meet him, you might expect him to be wispy and pixie-like, but he is as brawny and good-natured as the neighborhood butcher. He has the buoyant self-assurance of someone who started poor and obscure but has always been sure he would end up rich and famous. He is so self-assured that he predicts it's just a matter of time before the art world comes around to appreciating him. In fact, he bet me a million dollars that a major museum will hold a Thomas Kinkade retrospective in his lifetime.

What Thomas Kinkade's fans will tell you about his paintings is that they are much more than just paintings -- overlooking, of course, the irony that they are also much less than paintings, since they are really just reproductions. Anyway, they will tell you that Kinkade pictures are an emotional experience. People get attached to them in a profound way. While I was at the highlighter event, I asked the gallery consultant -- the person who can help you match a Kinkade to your sofa upholstery -- how she came to have her job, and she said that she had hung around the gallery so often that all concerned decided she just had to be given a job. Her name was Janice Schafer, and when she talked about Kinkade she was as animated as a jumping bean. "We actually met him!" she exclaimed. "It was such an absolutely amazing thing! He's even better than the way he is on QVC! A lot of times, the icon doesn't live up to the image, but he did. He really connects to people. He was so friendly when we met him. You never felt you were in the presence of genius, which you were, and you never felt you were in the presence of someone a lot more affluent than you, which he is." Suddenly, Glenda's timer buzzed. Janice peered over to examine "Evening Majesty."

"Oh, I love the way the smoke came out!" she said. "Oh, and look!" she said, pointing to the bottom corner of the picture. "She highlighted the puppy dog, too!" Everyone nodded. Janice went to help a customer choose a picture for his wife's birthday, and Glenda freshened her paints. She is one of thirty master highlighters. Her training involved a seven-day workshop followed by an exam testing her knowledge of the paintings and how to highlight them, and her knowledge of Kinkade himself: his birthday, the names of his children, where he met his wife, details of his childhood -- in other words, the sort of intimate tidbits that could be sprinkled into the conversation during the highlighting, and that would make people feel they were getting not merely a reproduction of a painting but a chance to connect with Thomas Kinkade. Glenda said she had been highlighting for almost a year. During the week, she works in a gift shop in California, and two or three weekends a month she travels to a gallery event. Her dream is to travel with Kinkade to Europe and do gallery events there.

Currently, there are signature galleries in Canada, England, and Scotland; the company plans to expand throughout Europe and then take on Japan. She said that while she is highlighting, customers tell her about their lives and often about some sadness they feel is lifted when they look at Kinkade's work. "I get a lot of cancer survivors," she said. "I meet a lot of people who have just lost someone. I send the most special stories I hear back to Thom."

Another customer plunked down in the chair next to Glenda. She reset her timer for fifteen minutes. "I'm getting 'Hometown something,'" the customer said. "I already have 'Hometown something else.'What is it? 'Hometown Morning,' ?Hometown Evening,' I don't know."

"You're building a great portfolio," Janice Schafer said. "They're nice investments. And this one's almost sold out. And they do have a history of appreciation. We have some secondary-market pieces here. This one, 'Julianne's Cottage,' was released for a few hundred dollars in 1992, and now it's thirty-seven hundred and thirty dollars."

"Well, I like the one I'm getting," the customer said. "It's like a picture of some tightly knit neighborhood where everything is well and everyone is friendly to each other. It's nice."

"It would be nice with this one, too," Janice said, pointing to another piece hanging across the gallery. She admired it for a moment and then clasped her hands and said, "You know, he's like a national treasure."

Not only the highlighters but the gallery staff, the Media Arts receptionists, even the people who build the frames and stretch the canvases know Kinkade's biography by heart: that he was raised in Placerville, California; that his father left home when Thomas was five; that his mother told him he would be the man of the family. That he was good at everything he tried -- math, civics, and especially drawing -- and that when he was about fourteen he set up a little concession selling his drawings for two dollars each, and that every time he sold one he would marvel at how he could make money on something that had taken him only fifteen minutes to do. That he went to what he jokingly calls "a nice little conservative Christian school," Berkeley, and left after two years to attend the Art Center College of Design, in Pasadena. That when he was twenty he experienced a Christian awakening, and that it changed his art -- it stopped being about his fears and anxieties and became optimistic and inspirational, with themes like home towns and perfect days and natural beauty, and millions of people responded. It's as good a story as you could hope for if you want to make a point about perseverance and pulling yourself up by your bootstraps and appreciating life's bounty; even the bad parts of the story are good, because it's easier not to begrudge Kinkade his fortune when you are reminded that he was a poor kid who had to struggle, who rejected the smarty-pants liberal establishment to follow his heart, and who is proud of having earned his way into the ultimate American aristocracy of successful entrepreneurs.

Kinkade's commercial awakening occurred in 1989, when he formed Lightpost Publishing with a business partner, Ken Raasch. His paintings were selling well, but he decided that he wanted "to engulf as many hearts as possible with art," a goal that would be hindered by selling only original work. Instead, Kinkade opened a chain of galleries and began producing high-quality digital reproductions of his paintings on specially treated paper, which sold for a few hundred dollars each. A digital image could also be soaked in water, peeled off the paper, and affixed to a stretched canvas, so that it showed the texture of the canvas the way a real painting would. These canvas transfers could be sold as they were, or they could be accented with paint by a master highlighter or by a special apprentice to Kinkade ("Studio Proofs" and "Renaissance Editions") or by Kinkade himself ("Masters Editions"); the transfers now fetch anywhere from fifteen hundred dollars for the standard numbered editions to thirty-four thousand dollars for the prints that Kinkade highlighted himself. The originals were no longer for sale at any price, and the number of each edition was restricted, and the image was "suspended" once it was sold out.

In 1994, Kinkade was named Artist of the Year by the National Association of Limited Edition Dealers, and the demand for his pictures was growing so fast that he was able to take his company public. Business Week named it one of the "hot growth" companies of 1995. A Kinkade picture had become "collectible" -- one of the countless items valued not just for their own merits but for their supposed rarity and potential to appreciate because they have been intentionally produced in a restricted quantity. According to a 1999 survey, the collectibles market is worth an estimated ten billion dollars a year. The market includes limited-edition Boyds Bears, which are costumed Teddies; and Adam Binder's Fruit Faeries, which are marble-powder-and-resin creatures with names like Humble Umhalubhala the Apple Faerie; and the "Ebony Visions" sculptures of Thomas Blackshear, who describes his work as Afro-Nouveau; and a series called "Just the Right Shoe," which are miniature right shoes in different styles, made by an artist who calls herself Raine; and all varieties of dolls and unicorn figures and paperweights and Olszewski Miniatures and Cameo Girls vases and Snowbabies and Precious Moments moppets and Steinbach limited-edition nutcrackers, and, of course, Hummel figurines.

There are scores of limited-edition painters in addition to Kinkade, and they account for some seven hundred million dollars of the collectibles market each year. They include every sort of landscape and still-life painter, and wildlife and marine-life painter, and Christian-themed painter, and sports painter (and at least one multidimensional painter, Arnold Friberg, whose subject matter is described on one Web site as ranging from "the Bible to American football").

Kinkade is not the only multimillionaire among the limitededition artists: Bev Doolittle, whose art is described by dealers as whimsical, mystical, and spiritual, has sold sixty million dollars' worth of prints in the last decade; Wyland ("the world's premier ocean artist") has sold more than fifty million dollars' worth of whale pictures; Terry Redlin, according to Time magazine, sells twenty million dollars' worth of Americana images each year. Like Kinkade, Redlin has stopped selling his originals. He now displays them in the Redlin Art Center, in Watertown, South Dakota, which opened in 1997 and drew four hundred thousand visitors in its first six months. According to the museum's Web site, "Certainly no one would disagree that Terry's artwork, which holds such a special place in the homes and hearts of so many Americans, should be preserved in a public setting." Redlin's limited editions'"Affordable Decorator Art by Terry Redlin," as one dealer advertises it -- are available instead, although only just available. Because they are expensive and might "sell out," the prints seem more precious than ordinary reproductions that are issued in unlimited quantity.

People like to own things they think are valuable, and they are titillated by the prospect that the things they own might be even more valuable than they thought. The high price of limited editions is part of their appeal: it implies that they are choice and exclusive, and that only a certain class of people will be able to afford them -- a limited edition of people with taste and discernment.

"I created a system of marketing compatible with American art," Kinkade said to me recently. "I believe in 'aspire to' art. I want my work to be available but not common. I want it to be a dignified component of everyday life. It's good to dream about things. It's like dreaming of owning a Rolex ~n instead, you dream about owning a seventy-five-thousand-dollar print." In fact, a lot of limited- edition art is about dreaming; so many of the paintings portray wistful images of a noble and romantic past that never was, or the anti-intellectual innocence of fairies and animals, or mythical heroes who can never fail and never fade.

Last May, I visited the Media Arts Group headquarters, in a plain brown building in a commercial district near the San Jose airport. Inside, the office had the d`Ecor that characterizes all the Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries: the furniture was plump and chintz-covered, and the walls were a soothing forest green, and a gas flame in the fireplace lapped at a ceramic log, so that whether you were in a mall in central New Jersey or an industrial park in Northern California, you would feel you had entered Thomas Kinkade's world, where it is always a dusky autumn evening in a small but prosperous English town. The day I visited was actually hot, dry, and blindingly bright, the height of spring in the middle of Silicon Valley, and dust from airport construction gave the air a blurry glow. I had come at a lively moment for Media Arts: the company had recently launched a new chain of stores called the Masters of Light Galleries, featuring three artists whose work had been selected from the more than two thousand who applied. The Masters of Light Galleries are part of a plan to diversify Media Arts Group, because stock analysts have worried about the company's reliance on one charismatic figure and about the possibility that Kinkade's popularity has crested and will inevitably ebb, his paintings going the way of so many collectibles before them. "Analysts are fascinated by the company," Craig Fleming, the Media Arts C.E.O., explained. (Fleming has since left Media Arts.) "But they were never excited about the company based on just Thom. Now, with the diversification, they're starting to do due diligence and pay attention to the stock."

Fleming is not an art guy. He was a sales guy who came to Media Arts after twenty-five years of working for nutritional-product companies, home-party businesses, and the Kirby vacuum-cleaning company. He said that when he first got to Media Arts he would go around asking "What's our No. 1 product?" and would then supply the answer himself: "Our No. 1 product is the Thomas Kinkade business opportunity!" In 1998, shortly after he took over, the stock price pitched downward, suffering from the industry's weakness, the company's overexpansion, and Wall Street's coolness toward small-cap companies. Fleming oversaw the sale of most company-owned galleries; all but two Thomas Kinkade galleries are now owned by franchisees. According to a recent quarterly report, the company also developed "a new retail promotional event involving appearances by Thomas Kinkade at selected Galleries which substantially reduced the decline in same store sales, increased product pull-through, lowered retail inventory, improved accounts receivable and strengthened our cash position." In other words, wherever Kinkade appears, customers buy pictures.

"Thom will go to a gallery, and twenty-five hundred people will show up," Fleming said. "He speaks for about thirty minutes, and afterward they come up to him and talk. It's very emotional, some of them are crying and saying, 'Here's how you have affected me.'" He paused and then gestured toward a large Kinkade hanging in his office. "We believe that the walls of the home are the new frontier for branding. Thom always says that there are forty walls in the average home. Our job is to fill them."

Last month, Taylor Woodrow Homes and Media Arts Group opened The Village, a Thomas Kinkade Community, a gated development in Vallejo, California. According to promotional material, it is a "magical community" featuring "meandering sidewalks, benches and water features, which are designed to enrich homeowners -- lives with endless visual surprises and delights." There are four house models available, and they are named after Kinkade's four daughters -- Chandler, Merritt, Everett, and Winsor -- and will be priced from four hundred thousand dollars up.

Thomas Kinkade lives in a large handsome house in a magical suburban community the name of which I am not at liberty to disclose. It is easy to understand his wish for privacy: ten million people own some product featuring his name, and most editions are signed with ink containing DNA from his hair or blood, to prevent fakes. He likes to say he has a retro -- "but not Amish" -- life style. His children are homeschooled by his wife, Nanette, and they don't watch television, but he owns "a hell of a lot of stuff, a nice car and so forth." He works in an old stone cottage on the grounds of his house. The cottage is filled with his favorite paintings: an original by his idol, Norman Rockwell; a seascape by Glenn Wessels, who taught him art when he was a teen-ager; a pastel by his father, an amateur artist who, according to Kinkade, never made anything of his life. In the main room of the cottage are easels, shelves of reference books, and a high-tech color-balanced lighting system that provides the constant effect of overcast midday sun. At the time, Kinkade was working on a painting of two horses grazing in the yard of a trim stone cottage. The horses weren't finished yet, and next to the easel he had pinned a photograph of a horse which appeared to have been torn out of a cigarette ad. The room was clean and orderly and didn't smell of turpentine or brush cleaner.

"I have this certain ability to have in my mind an image that means something to real people," he said, sitting on a sofa across the room from the easels. "The No. 1 quote critics give me is 'Thom, your work is irrelevant.' Now, that's a fascinating, fascinating comment. Yes, irrelevant to the little subculture, this microculture, of modern art. But here's the point: My art is relevant because it's relevant to ten million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture, not the least. Because I'm relevant to real people." He sat up and started to laugh. "I remember that quote, man! It was a great quote! It was 'The Louvre is full of dead pictures by dead artists.' And you know, that's the dead art we don't want anything to do with!" He laughed again and slapped his thighs. "We're the art of life, man! We're bringing the life back to art!"

The door of his studio opened and a slight blond girl walked in. "Daddy, how do you spell 'schedule'?"

"That's an important question," Kinkade said. "S-C-H-E-D-U-L-E, honey." The girl drifted out of the room. "The fact is we have a grassroots movement emerging in my art and in the country, and there's ten million people out there that if I give the word will go out and picket any museum I want them to," he went on. "I won't give the word, but they're dying to have an art of dignity within our culture, an art of relevance to them. Look at someone like Robert Rauschenberg. What's his Q rating? How many people have his art? A hundred? Where is the million-seller art? What about the craftsmanship of expression?"

I asked him why he even cared how the art establishment viewed him, since it hadn't had any effect on his work.

"It's irritating," he said. He cocked his head and grinned. "I'm thinking of starting this program of loaning a few of my paintings to some of these critics and let them live with them for a year or two and see what they think then. Because art really grows as you live with it. See, I have faith in the heart of the average person. People find hope and comfort in my paintings. I think showing people the ugliness of the world doesn't help it. I think pointing the way to light is deeply contagious and satisfying. I would want to argue that I'm not an antagonist to modernists. I just believe in picture-making for people. I'm a firebrand. I will sit down and debate the grand tradition with anyone. I am really the most controversial artist in the world."

I asked him what he would have done with his life if he hadn't become a painter. "What would I have done?" he repeated, gazing across the room. "I would have probably become a motivational speaker."

When I was in the gallery in Bridgewater, I wandered into the stockroom. I had toured the manufacturing area of Media Arts in California and had watched a crew of Hispanic workers peel images off wet paper and smooth them onto canvases and then slide them onto racks like pies set out to cool. Now, in the Bridgewater stockroom, I came across a stack of boxes fresh from the factory, with the names of the pictures scribbled on the side: one "Light in the Storm," one "Clearing Storms," two "Conquering the Storms," and one "Sea of Tranquility."

By then, it was midday. Several more paintings had been highlighted and taken away by their owners; Glenda was now sitting with a man and a woman, meek and awkward, their new painting, "Clocktower Cottage," on the highlighting stand.

"Is this your first Kinkade?" Glenda asked. They nodded. "Well, congratulations. Let me tell you a little about what is here. This is about the changes of time. You see, everything changes. The sky changes, and the clouds change, and life changes." They leaned in so that they could follow Glenda's finger as she pointed to details in the picture. "Do you see this?" she asked, resting her finger on the clocktower. "Here the clock says five-o-two, which is Thom and Nanette's wedding date. And here are the initials 'NK' -- that's for his wife, that's how he honors her. It's his love language for her."

They were transfixed now. Glenda took a brush and dipped it in the green paint, and then with quick, short strokes dappled the underside of a tree. It was just a touch, but the tree suddenly stood out from the other trees, and it seemed newly bright and full. "Wow!" the man said. He glanced at his wife and then back at the picture. "I hadn't even noticed that before."

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