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Thomas Kinkade's life was often at odds with his pastoral vision

April 7, 2012 | 12:51 pm

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As an artist, Thomas Kinkade, who died Friday of natural causes at the age of 54, devoted himself to creating pastoral images that evoked a simpler, more innocent quality of life, but as a businessman he was more complex.

“He was bigger than life,” said Steve Rice, the mayor of Los Gatos, Kinkade’s home. “He was gregarious, outgoing and engaging -- as you might expect an artist to be.”

Rice said that Kinkade was "very involved" in the Los Gatos community, donating paintings to help raise money for the elementary schools and the Police Department. At one auction last year for the police foundation, one of Kinkade’s painting went for more than $10,000, according to Rice.

PHOTOS: The work of Thomas Kinkade

In 2001, at the height of his empire, Kinkade’s publicly traded company Media Arts Group generated $130 million in sales, and Southern California was a cornerstone of the business. In Orange County, 20 stores sold his paintings. Many of these franchised “Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries” were located in shopping malls, including South Coast Plaza, which had one of the largest Kinkade galleries in the country.

In addition to his paintings –- available at six price levels ranging from $635 to $13,000 -– there were Kinkade prints, mugs, Hallmark cards, screensavers, home furnishings, La-Z-Boy chairs, linens, wallpaper and china, and in the Northern California city of Vallejo, the developer Taylor Woodrow partnered with Kinkade on a housing tract -– The Village at Hiddenbrooke –- that broke ground in 2000 and whose model homes, priced at $400,000, were named after Kinkade’s four children. According to marketing materials, the community presented a “vision of simpler times … with meandering pathways, benches, water features and secret places.”

Kinkade's success was dramatic for his having grown up, as he described it, in a broken home and for his hardscrabble childhood. When he was starting out, he worked as a film animator and hawked his paintings at supermarket parking lots in his hometown of Placerville, Calif. His climb to fame began in the 1980s when he and his wife spent their life savings to start making his prints.

Buyers of his paintings are fiercely passionate. "This is God-given talent," said Karen de la Carriere in 2006. "He is a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci or Monet. There is no one in our generation who can paint like that."

But the artist, who not only trademarked his name but also his sobriquet, Painter of Light, had a more troubled side.

Former employees and gallery owners described him as a ruthless businessman, and in 2006, a three-member panel of the American Arbitration Assn. ordered his company to pay $860,000 for defrauding former owners of two failed Virginia galleries. That decision was a setback for Kinkade, who had won three previous arbitration claims. At the time, though, five more claims were pending.

Not only were his business practices called into question, but in sworn testimony and interviews, associates took exception to his personal behavior, which belied his self-avowed Christian values. “When I got saved, God became my art agent,” he said in a 2004 video biography that championed his faith and belief in family values.

Less-than-Christian incidents included allegedly public drunkenness, heckling illusionists Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas, cursing a former employee’s wife who came to his aid when he fell off a barstool and palming a woman’s breast at a signing party in South Bend, Ind.

During one visit to the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim in the late 1990s, he urinated on a Winnie the Pooh figure, quipping “This one’s for you, Walt,” according to Terry Sheppard, a former vice president for Kinkade’s company.

The allegations were published in a profile of the artist in The Times in 2006, and four years later, the artist was arrested outside of Carmel on suspicion of drunk driving and booked into Monterey County Jail.

The arrest occurred less than two weeks after one of his companies –- Pacific Metro of Morgan Hill -– filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.


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-- Thomas Curwen

Photo: A gallery showing Kinkade works in Carmel in 2004. Credit: Los Angeles Times.