My Meeting with Thomas Kinkade

It was one of the few times that I agreed to a condition prior to an interview; it may, in fact, be the only time. After a tour of Lighthouse Publishing's warehouse south of San Francisco, I was given directions to Thomas Kinkade's home and studio in the hills outside of Los Gatos, California, under the condition that I never reveal the location.

I agreed. It seemed like a harmless concession, and one that wouldn't compromise the story.

Kinkade, who died unexpectedly last week at age 54, greeted me warmly and showed me around his very impressive studio. Several half-completed canvases rested on easels at various places inside the large, sun-dappled space.

I should probably pause here to say that I don't own any of Kinkade's art, nor do I aspire to. His work always struck me as formulaic and more than a tad insipid. But I've long been fascinated by its appeal, and I wanted to know more about the artist.

Kinkade made a name for himself not only for the ubiquity of his art but for his evangelical convictions. He routinely included an "ichthys" fish in his paintings, and he spoke unabashedly about using his art as a tool for evangelism.

During my visit, however, Kinkade was more interested in talking about his ambitions to transform the world of art. He had nothing kind to say about modern art, which he regarded as an abomination. "The whole Modernist lie is that art is about the artist," Kinkade told me, which has given rise to an "inbred, closed culture." Museums, he said, were dying.

"The disintegration of the culture starts with the artist," he continued. "I'm on a crusade to turn the tide in the arts, to restore dignity to the arts and, by extension, to the culture."

Kinkade's plan, never realized, was audacious. "I don't want to clean up the outhouse," he said, "to close the Whitney; I want to build a temple next door."

My conversation with Kinkade in 2000 prompted me to visit the Whitney on my return to New York. Kinkade had talked about what he characterized as the "fecal school" of art and "bodily function" art. The exhibits at the Whitney didn't exactly fit that description, but they hardly featured the sylvan landscapes for which Kinkade became famous, with lush vegetation and homey cottages with soft, buttery light emanating from the windows.

Kinkade's studio, with its natural, muted colors and its huge stone fireplace, probably comes as close to the artist's renderings as anything I've ever seen. Our conversation was relaxed and cordial; he asked me to write his biography, promising that, given his popularity as the "world's most collected artist," I'd sell millions of copies.

Kinkade's artistic vision, much reviled by the critics, portrayed an Edenic, prelapsarian (before the fall) world. His paintings invited reverie on the part of the viewer. "The art of Thomas Kinkade offers an oasis, a retreat from the assaults of modern life, a vision of a more perfect world," I wrote after my visit with the artist. "Who among us wouldn't like to catch a glimpse of that world from time to time, to picture life before the fall?"

Say what you will about Kinkade's art - and he never lacked for critics - Kinkade appreciated beauty, and he sought to convey that to others. His tactics were blatantly commercial, and he was hardly averse to self-promotion. But his work served as a reminder (in his own words) "that it's not all ugliness in the world."

I concluded my article by noting that, despite the allure of Kinkade's canvases, the viewer was perpetually outside the frame. However much we might want to envision ourselves sitting cross-legged by the fire inside one of his cottages, that space was inaccessible.

Even, apparently, for Kinkade himself. Tragically, over the past decade or so Kinkade struggled with alcohol abuse and pleaded no contest to a drunk-driving charge. Dealers accused him of business malfeasance. Although one of the "signatures" of a Kinkade canvas had been the embedding of an "N" somewhere in the painting to honor Nanette, his wife, obituaries noted that the couple had been separated for a year before his death.

Eden remains oh-so-elusive.