Monday, April 16, 2012

Thomas Kinkade, Painter

Some Kind of a Man

Paul Chadwick, Tom Kinkade, and Jim Gurney in a Polaroid
reference shot for a forgotten illustration.

In the days since the death of painter Thomas Kinkade I've been irked by the online outpourings of both his admirers and his detractors. The former gush syrupy paeans about Christian devotion and speaking great truths. The latter rupture themselves straining for the nastiest ways to express contempt for Kinkade and his fans. Missing is any attempt to see him as a human being.

Commentators mention specific events in Kinkade's life only as evidence supporting their opinions. Admirers dwell on his noble early struggles, his charity work, and his long marriage. Detractors prefer his shady business dealings and his drunken excesses. To both camps Thomas Kinkade is a mythical construct representing their interpretations of his art and career. Was the Painter of Light a paragon of traditional values and American entrepreneurism? Or was he a purveyor of schlock who preyed upon the booboisie? Neither, really. And both.

Those of us who knew Tom back before he got his "h," back in the crazy days of the art colony at the crumbling Golden Palm apartments, have been mulling over the arc of his life. How did the guy we knew become the millionaire commander of a beseiged outpost at the edge of the Culture Wars?

I was Tom's neighbor for several years while he was finishing his time at Art Center and working to establish a gallery presence. I was some ten years older than most of the "GP" gang. Tom Kinkade, Jim Gurney, Paul Chadwick, Alan Munro and the others were just leaving school when I arrived in LA. Despite my age I was at much the same stage in my career. Ever a late bloomer, I'd come to LA in hopes of finally finding a place in comics.

Because I never roomed with Tom or attended school with him, I didn't know him as well as Paul Chadwick. This memoir from Paul's blog offers a good account of the challenges of living with young Tom Kinkade. Since I didn't have to deal with as much BS as Paul, I ended up liking Tom more that he did. Still there was no denying that Tom was quite a handful.

The major theme of Tom's GP years was self-invention. He seemed obsessed with wanting to live like an Artist. He tried to dress an an Artist would dress, think as an Artist would think, do what an Artist would do. Determining exactly what that was became the focus of his existence.

Paul describes the manic energy with which Tom careened from one grandiose idea to another. Societies, styles, movements, enterprises...he'd dream them up and dissolve them in a single breath. But unlike many budding Artistes Tom wasn't all talk. He constantly dared himself to do the grand and crazy things that Artists would do, as if he had to prove to himself that he was indeed the Real McCoy.

His comrade-in-arms in this quest for the mythic life was his friend Jim Gurney. They fed off each other's energy, playing pranks, acting like loons, goading each other into wild stunts. They dressed in identical work uniforms (complete with embroidered name badges) and addressed each other as "Jackson." They played a non-stop vaudeville act, baffling us rubes with loud patter and dazzling us with the risks they'd take for art. One time they visited the seamy side of town and performed their floor show while sketching gang members. Another time they wore their matching work shirts to a notorious biker bar, sat down and began drawing the patrons without asking their permission.
Reference Polaroid of Ron taken by Paul
for a movie poster comp
Being terminally shy and a thorough coward, I often envied the exploits of "The Incredible Two-Headed Jackson Monster." But to tell the truth most of the time they could be a major pain in the ass. Stunt diving into the pool could be funny. Pouring a shellac "J" on my doorstep and setting it afire, not so much. The act broke up when the Jacksons married and found their wives weren't as fond of the team as the guys were.

I got to know Tom as well as I ever did while I was drawing "Dallas" and "Star Trek" for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate. I usually worked all night and slept during the day. Tom was on the same schedule, preparing for one of his first big shows. The Western Art Boom of the early 1980s was in full swing. Inspired by the work of Michael Coleman, Tom was painting romantic landscapes with a teepee or two added to lend a Western flavor. Back then he worked sitting before his easel, surrounded by a wilderness of sketches, photos, prints and clippings.

Tom was on some kind of impossible deadline--he'd committed to painting dozens of canvases in just a few weeks. This is where I saw a side of him that people seldom mention. He worked his ass off. True, he quickly developed a formula to speed the process along. But I assure you that Tom didn't just amble into gallery painting, he got there via the Long March.

Anyway, we'd both run out of steam around two A.M. For a break we'd stroll up the street to an all-night cafe. We'd talk art and watch drunks wander in as the bars emptied. Sometimes Tom would engage one in conversation, always with a kind of smirking superiority that made me uncomfortable. We frequently discussed the business of art. Tom had determined that the key to success was a winning formula and a huge output. He thought he might be able to get a whopping $300 per canvas, and if he sold enough of them--that's where the story always ended. Back then, at least, Tom wasn't envisioning an empire.

In those chats we covered a lot of ground: Victorian painters, color theory, comics, money, women. But I never got much of a sense of the "real" Tom. When he spoke of his past or his longing for his sweetheart Nanette, it always came out sounding like a story. It's as if Tom knew himself only through the same romanticized fables he told the rest of us.

After Tom married he and Nanette moved to Placerville, his old home town. He'd had some success and made a lot of contacts, but he was still a struggling artist. In Placerville he painted his first John Stobart-inspired city print. This was the famous print he and Nanette hawked in front of a grocery store. It was his first solid step up the ladder to fame. It was a nice painting. Tom gave Jan and me a print in 1985, when our son Joey was still a work in progress. He inscribed it to "Ron, Jan and Jr." The print hangs over our piano.

We visited Tom and Nanette at their Placerville home. Tom had built an enviable studio in the old barn next door. To Jan's annoyance (and I imagine Nanette's) Tom ignored the women so he could talk art with me. By this time he was full of plans--still no empire--and was confident of a great future.

We enjoyed one more visit with Tom and Nanette. Their first daughter was a just a baby. We spent a couple of days in a cabin in the magnificient Kings Canyon national forest. We had a great time. We talked (all of us this time), admired the kids, played with a friendly dog. Tom painted a skillful landscape while I struggled with starting one (I never learned how to paint outdoors). Tom offered advice and did a welcome paintover.

Years passed before we met Tom again. By that time he was a star. He invited us to a big bash in Monterey honoring his birthday. The show was fun in its way, but it was unmistakably planned by Tom to celebrate the Legend of Tom. He'd flown in a teacher he'd admired so the elderly man could say hagiographic things about him. He told larger-than-life stories about the GP days. He drank too much and became sentimental and noisy. After that party, he rose into the ranks of the super-rich and we never saw him again.

In an article in the late Thomas Kinkade's home town newspaper, people described major changes in Tom's life during the two years before his death. Nanette, now estranged after decades of marriage, said they'd split because Tom felt the need to "live the artist's life." Neighbors described him changing how he dressed, growing new facial hair, acting "differently." Could it really be that banal? After all the millions of dollars, the fame, the years of marriage, the sharky business, the drinking, after building the empire and watching it crumble--after all that, was Tom still trying on new costumes, still looking for an identity that fit him?

Which brings us back full circle to the lovers and the haters. What is it about humans that drives us to condense a person's life into a two-line caption that ties everything neatly together and explains all the inconsistencies? We build ridiculous straw men, selecting and rejecting aspects of complex lives in such a way that our final assembly makes a sort of sense. We confuse the man's paintings with the man himself. We pretend our myth man deliberately sent his works into the world to create the results we admire or revile. If we like the paintings, Tom was a saint who painted them to spread joy to the world. If we don't, Tom was a predatory swine who painted them to exploit the common man's gullibility.

Weren't Tom's paintings like every thing else in his life--reflections of the contradictory dreams and desires and fantasies inside his complicated head? Could Tom be friendly, generous, creative, even loving? Probably. Could Tom also be grasping, self-delusional, crass, even heartless? Probably. Contrary to the old saying, you can have it both ways. You must have it both ways.

Oddly enough I'm reminded of a movie. In Orson Welles' 1958 drama "Touch of Evil," policeman Hank Quinlan (Welles) destroys himself with evil deeds done in the name of good. At the end of the movie someone asks his long-suffering mistress Tanya  (Marlene Dietrich) what the man was like.

"He was some kind of a man," she replies.

Many critics took her statement to be the old American idiom expressing admiration. They wondered how Tanya, who knew Quinlan's depredations better than anyone, could admire him. Other writers--I believe they were the ones who caught Welles' real meaning--heard it differently.

"He was some kind of a man." She really didn't know. Hank Quinlan was the sum of all the things, good and bad, that he did in his life, and the sum made no sense. All he was--was something.

That's where I end up with Tom. Thomas. Thom. I want as much as anyone to force his life to make sense, but having known and liked him I can't take the easy way out by turning him into a symbol. What remains is that Tom was some kind of a man, and that's all I'll ever know.

1 comment:

Cortney Skinner said...

Thanks for this reminiscence. A much-needed perspective!