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Thomas Kinkade: Art for Everybody

Wednesday, July 29, 2009 @ 11:07 AM Karen Hood

Excerpt from “Art for Everybody” by Susan Orlean
Originally published by The New Yorker, October 2001

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.

To read the full article, click here.

Shop for Thomas Kinkade collectibles now at Karen’s Collector’s Cottage. Buy Hope, the beautiful collectible designed for Breast Cancer Awareness that is featured in this article, here.

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