Monday, April 09, 2012

Remembering The Painter of Light

I hadn't planned on talking about death again so soon after my reflections on the subject for Good Friday, but the sudden passing of artist Thomas Kinkade, who had styled himself as the "Painter of Light," on Friday night changed those plans.

I think I first became aware of Kinkade's work when I was in college. Although I have always thought his work quite beautiful, he sparked my interest for a rather different reason: he grew up in my parents' hometown of Placerville, CA. In fact, I understand that he was in the same high school graduating class as one of my aunts (a couple of years younger than my own parents), and we've been particularly interested in the occasional painting he would create depicting a Placerville locale of one type or another. My favorite work of Kinkade's, The Mountain Chapel (seen in the plaque to the left, but here's a better look), uncannily reminds me of Montreat, even though Montreat clearly was in no way the inspiration for this piece.

While I was in college, my exposure to Kinkade's work was largely positive. It wasn't really until I came to Fuller that I would learn that Kinkade's work has critics. Indeed, the artistic community I came to know during my brief tenure as the student Arts Concerns Chair almost universally disliked Kinkade's work, considering it "cheesy" or otherwise inferior. I came to learn that this was not an uncommon opinion among art critics. I confess that I've never quite understood this opinion, and thus my attempts to do so invariably have a quality of being uncharitable. Kinkade, who was without argument wildly successful in marketing his work, often compared himself with Norman Rockwell, who also enjoyed broad popularity, yet was often dismissed by art critics. It is certainly too simple (to say nothing of unfair) to call such critics "snobs" or "elitist," but it's hard not to feel that some jealousy at Kinkade's enormous financial success may have been at play. After all, artists do put a lot of effort into their work, and most never see much, if any, tangible reward for their efforts. I know I find it frustrating when I find that others don't appreciate work that I do, especially when it seems like others get greater recognition for work that seems, at least to me, less worthy for whatever reason.

Kinkade was an outspoken Christian, often incorporating Christian symbolism (including "light," itself, as a reflection of the divine) and Scripture passages into his work. It therefore didn't surprise me that the source from which I initially learned of Kinkade's passing was Christianity Today. I later found articles from more secular sources, and they perhaps gave more attention to Kinkade's artistic career and reputation, but the short Christianity Today article highlights that Kinkade's life was by no means perfect, detailing his arrest on suspicion of drunken driving, a bankruptcy filing, and investigation of possible fraud. I don't know how much truth was behind that suspicion and investigation, but it certainly suggests that Kinkade's life may not have been as idyllic as the paintings he became known for.

Oddly enough, although I was surprised by that revelation, it didn't really bother me much. My exposure to Kinkade, beginning as it did from the discovery that he was from my parents' hometown, was such that he was less "a celebrity" to me and more "a human being." He had origins just like the people I know and care most deeply about. And, being human, Kinkade was bound to have the same human limitations that the rest of us do. None of this is to excuse any of Kinkade's sins, should the allegations turn out to be true, and I would hope that restitution can still be made in such an event. But even if so, that does not diminish his work. His "paintings of light," however idyllic and romanticized they were, were an amazing gift to the world, even if they admittedly did not reflect darker realities so well. Perhaps his work wasn't to everyone's taste, but it certainly was to mine, and I'm not going to let any art critic tell me what I should or shouldn't like. The world has plenty of darkness to spare. I think there's more than enough room for a little light to shine through that.

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