Update: Given the level of interest and feeling this post has garnered since it was initially published, readers are encouraged to take a look at the two follow-up pieces. Click here for the first, and here for the second.
To be honest, I didn’t even know Thomas Kinkade was dead. That was until I read this fascinating piece on Kinkade, America’s favorite sentimental “Painter of Light,” from The Daily Beast by Zac Bissonnette: “The Drunken Downfall of Evangelical America’s Favorite Painter.” I also had no idea Kinkade was (a) an Evangelical Christian and (b) an alcoholic. The story is at once alarming, yet not surprising, and ultimately really sad. Thus, I can’t help but explore it here.
(Before I move on, I should preface this essay by noting that Kinkade died on Good Friday two years ago, so I was probably distracted by the busyness of Holy Week to catch the news. Apparently missing this story also means I managed to miss our friend Dan Siedell’s must-read article shortly following Kinkade’s death. Anything I write here is a mere shadow compared to Siedell’s artistic expertise and poignant interpretations.)
I know Kinkade from kitschy tourist sections of the California towns where I grew up. One could always find his shops on beaches or on historic Main Streets selling prints of his disturbingly idyllic work. Even as a child I got a strange vibe from his shops. If I were to judge the man solely from his paintings, I would have guessed he was more like Bob Ross and less like Keith Richards. Although he painted like Ross, he certainly partied like Richards. It is too bad he never hit the kind of rock bottom that leads to recovery. Rather, he bottomed out in death due to “acute ethanol and diazepam intoxication”—alcohol and Valium. He OD’ed.
Personally, never have I been more interested in Thomas Kinkade. Here is an interesting tidbit from Bissonnette’s article on the inspiration and thought process behind his work:
In the 1980s, Kinkade thought the art world had become detached from the public—and he saw himself as the person to return it to an artist-as-servant model, where painters affirmed rather than challenged social values. His hero was Andy Warhol, who, he felt, had rescued art from insularity and infused it with iconography that meant something to ordinary people; what Warhol did with soup cans and Marilyn Monroe, Kinkade thought he could do with Eden-inspired garden scenes and Cotswolds cottages.
But the story continues that despite painting a world unmarred by the Fall at Eden, Kinkade spiraled increasingly out of control into a debauched life of sin contradictory to his conservative Evangelical values. Eventually, his surprising private behavior became public.
The company persevered, but Kinkade himself did not fare as well. He controlled his fondness for alcohol and strip clubs adequately when his wife was with him, but things spiraled out of control when he was on the road. By the mid-2000s, Kinkade’s family was pushing him into inpatient rehab as stories about his alcoholism started to make the news. The last five years of his life were characterized by the pattern of ups and downs familiar to many addicts.
“Thom believed that he should be able to control it, and that contributed to his downfall,” his brother remembers. “He had six months of sobriety and he was doing all these wonderful things. He was calling me and telling me: ‘Feeling good! Losing weight! Doing great!’ And then suddenly, you get a message: ‘Thom’s had a beer.’ Two days later, he’s into vodka. Seven days later, [he’s] dead.”
It is the sort of recidivistic tale that is all too familiar. Knowing so many who struggle with alcoholism, I can’t help but feel for Kinkade. Since his death, Kinkade’s brother Patrick has become the spokesperson for the Kinkade brand, and he touches on the tragedy when giving retrospectives on his brother’s career. There is a glaring problem in Patrick’s thinking though that runs deep in much of Evangelicalism:
“My brother was a good man,” he said, pausing as he choked up along with much of the mostly middle-aged and older audience. “The tragedy of my brother is he eventually fell to his own humanity. The triumph of my brother is that his art was never touched by that tragedy. His art was affirmation that there was hope, there was beauty, and a statement of love that wasn’t touched by this.”
Those last two sentences make my heart sink. The dilemma with Kinkade’s art is that he sweeps human suffering under the rug. It sees the world through a pre-Fall lens. His paintings are a big fat lie. And I have to wonder if the dishonesty actually contributed to his personal suffering more than it helped. In other words: What would have happened if Kinkade had struggled with his pain in his art rather than painting a facade over the human predicament?
About a year ago a guy named Jeff Bennett created a hilariously awesome series called “Wars on Kinkade” that totally corrupted Kinkade pieces by introducing battle scenes from Star Wars into the bucolic scenes. The series is of course so worthy because it exposes the problematic facade Kinkade built. Bennett’s alterations introduce original sin into the equation. This is a good thing not because sin is good. Rather, sin is real, and art ought to grapple with sin rather than avoid it.
Chances are though, hypothetical Kinkade paintings that came from a place of suffering never would have sold millions like the real Kinkades did (and still do). As his brother Patrick says in a quote that ends Bissonnette’s article, “His legacy in terms of new publications … will far outlive anybody who reads this article.” Unfortunately, this is because, like Kinkade, the masses, including far too many Christians, like having the wool pulled over their eyes. Give me Hallmark, Kinkade, Joel Osteen, and Chicken Soup for the Soul they seem to say. They want the stuff that is never touched by tragedy, but ignoring the pain is no triumph. Rather, as Siedell says in his treatment of Kinkade:
Kinkade’s work is the meticulously painted smile on the Joker’s disfigured face. It refuses to deal with the fallenness, brokenness, sinfulness of the world. And more troubling, it enables his clientele to escape into an imaginary world where things can be pretty good, as long as we have our faith, our family values, and a visual imagery that re-affirms all this at the office and at home. That Kinkade and his followers believe this to be “Christian art” is an affront to art.
As a Christian with with evangelical—small e—leanings myself, I am finally most saddened by Kinkade’s story because I know Evangelicalism helped him perpetuate his lie. Christians often want to ignore the darkness and sin. But I, for one, find consolation in art that explores the dark places with honesty. It strikes a chord, showing me I’m not alone. It’s counter-intuitive perhaps, but such art gives me hope and often helps me to heal. I wish Kinkade could have gone there, too. He didn’t, but there is a place for honest art created by and/or appreciated by Christians. For now maybe Kinkade’s life story can serve as something of a cautionary tale about what happens when Christians demand just the “clean” stuff. We might instead be surprised to find more comfort in artists who bear their Cross and create from a place of suffering.
Epic bonus video: Kinkade maps Easter onto Good Friday.