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Artist Thomas Kinkade's Paintings Come to Life as Upscale Development

November 25, 2001|VERONIQUE de TURENNE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VALLEJO, Calif. — The quiet lanes and gentle vistas of Thomas Kinkade's paintings beguile the faithful. Reproduced on calendars and coffee cups, in prints and on wallpaper, it's a gauzy, weightless world in which time stands still.

Admirers react with awe. Critics call it awful. In the sunbaked hills of a former ranch 30 miles northeast of San Francisco, families with at least $400,000 to spend on Kinkade's vision will call it home.

The California painter has licensed his name and artistic inspiration to Taylor Woodrow Homes, a London-based housing developer. With Kinkade's paintings as a guide, Taylor Woodrow laid out a 101-house gated community called the Village. Streets, houses, fixtures and landscaping will epitomize Kinkade's nostalgic style.

About 300 people tour the Village's model homes each week. Seven homes have sold so far. It is a slower pace than the developer hoped for, but in keeping with the country's cautious mood since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

With models named for Kinkade's daughters--Chandler, Everett, Merritt and Winsor--the houses range from 1,800 to 2,600 square feet and sit on 4,000-square-foot lots. Touches such as decorative moldings and built-in bookshelves spring from Kinkade's fantasies of family life. Options such as a media room or wine bar bow to modern-day California.

And there are gates. Disguised as tollhouses, flanked by a fountain, the Village is nonetheless guarded. Kinkade seems abashed at the irony, but as master of an empire that earned about $450 million in licensing fees over the last four years, he submits to the economic need.

"Clearly, the gates are at odds with my vision," Kinkade said. "I can't imagine that living behind gates would be something I would enjoy. But they're a necessary sacrifice to the consumer instincts of the average home buyer."

Kinkade lives in the country near Santa Cruz, where he gets satisfaction from "my 50-foot commute" from his home to his artist's studio. There, he finishes about 12 paintings each year.

"The studio is central to my life," Kinkade said. "The kids come over to visit during the day, I have an easel set up for them. It's a foundational part of how we live."

Kinkade didn't sit down at the drawing board with Taylor Woodrow's architect, but he saw and approved designs along the way. He likes the front lawns that don't have fences. The bookcases were his idea. One of the model homes comes with an option for a small studio; another offers a granny flat above the garage, complete with a tiny balcony.

"This goes back a long way, from the early '90s, when I saw people were projecting themselves into these paintings," Kinkade said. "This was the obvious conclusion, the real-life re-creation of one of the paintings."

Kinkade's paintings beckoned Judy Deliramich, a 47-year-old resident of Castro Valley. She and her husband, Mark, toured the model homes this fall with an eye to the day she finishes her graduate degree at Cal State Hayward and the couple's three teenage daughters leave for college.

"Thomas Kinkade paintings are so peaceful, you feel like you want to be inside one," Deliramich said. "I thought if he could make something that looked like that, I would want to live there."

From the outside, the vision held. Two-story houses with steeply pitched roofs, deep front porches and paned windows sprang straight from Kinkade's lexicon. Driveways lined with pavers approximate the cobblestones of Kinkade's country villages. Old-fashioned street lamps, picket fences and meandering walkways completed the fantasy.

Indoors, however, things fell apart. The rooms felt cramped and the spaces were small, Deliramich said. Landscaping also fell short of Kinkade's extravagant greenery, with its banks of pink roses, purple spikes of delphinium and emerald lawns that can exist only in England.

"There's not enough water in the state of California to make a Thomas Kinkade garden," Deliramich said, laughing. "It wasn't right for me, but I like what he's doing. I think he's got the right idea."

He's not the first. Architects have long used structures to suggest utopia. For Frank Lloyd Wright, it was Usonia, a synthesis of architecture and landscape that would banish urban ills. California architects Greene and Greene used the Arts and Crafts movement as their muse.

"What Kinkade is doing in creating this utopian vision is actually part of a larger historical line than himself," said David Reid, a Berkeley writer who edited "Sex, Death and God in L.A."

"This whole idea of high living in association with a certain kind of house or light fixture is part of a great architectural tradition," Reid said. "What's interesting here is that instead of coming from an architectural school or movement, it's coming from one painter's imagination."

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