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Dark Portrait of a `Painter of Light'

Christian-themed artist Thomas Kinkade is accused of ruthless tactics and seamy personal conduct. He disputes the allegations.

March 05, 2006|Kim Christensen | Times Staff Writer

Thomas Kinkade is famous for his luminous landscapes and street scenes, those dreamy, deliberately inspirational images he says have brought "God's light" into people's lives, even as they have made him one of America's most collected artists.

A devout Christian who calls himself the "Painter of Light," Kinkade trades heavily on his beliefs and says God has guided his brush -- and his life -- for the last 20 years.

"When I got saved, God became my art agent," he said in a 2004 video biography, genteel in tone and rich in the themes of faith and family values that have helped win him legions of fans, albeit few among art critics.

But some former Kinkade employees, gallery operators and others contend that the Painter of Light has a decidedly dark side.

In litigation and interviews with the Los Angeles Times, some former gallery owners depict Kinkade, 48, as a ruthless businessman who drove them to financial ruin at the same time he was fattening his business associates' bank accounts and feathering his nest with tens of millions of dollars.

Kinkade -- whose solely owned Thomas Kinkade Co. is based in Morgan Hill, Calif. -- denies these allegations.

Last month, however, a three-member panel of the American Arbitration Assn. ordered his company to pay $860,000 for defrauding the former owners of two failed Virginia galleries. That decision marks the first major legal setback for Kinkade, who won three previous arbitration claims. Five more are pending.

It's not just Kinkade's business practices that have been called into question. Former gallery owners, ex-employees and others say his personal behavior also belies the wholesome image on which he's built his empire.

In sworn testimony and interviews, they recount incidents in which an allegedly drunken Kinkade heckled illusionists Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas, cursed a former employee's wife who came to his aid when he fell off a barstool, and palmed a startled woman's breasts at a signing party in South Bend, Ind.

And then there is Kinkade's proclivity for "ritual territory marking," as he called it, which allegedly manifested itself in the late 1990s outside the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim.

"This one's for you, Walt," the artist quipped late one night as he urinated on a Winnie the Pooh figure, said Terry Sheppard, a former vice president for Kinkade's company, in an interview.

Kinkade declined The Times' request for an interview but responded to written questions. He labeled those accounts of his personal behavior as "ridiculous" and "crazy allegations."

The artist and his lawyer, Dana Levitt, contend that Sheppard, a key witness in the arbitration cases against Kinkade and his company, is a disgruntled ex-employee, noting that he lost a wrongful termination claim against the artist's charitable foundations in 2004. They also deny the ex-dealers' allegations, which they say are driven by "lawyers playing the litigation lottery" and are "uncoupled from reality."

Kinkade, a self-described product of a broken home and a hardscrabble childhood, once worked as a film animator and hawked his paintings at supermarket parking lots in his hometown of Placerville, Calif. His climb to fame began two decades ago, when he and his wife spent their life savings to start making his prints.

Since then, Kinkade has spun a hugely lucrative career from his distinctly romantic, idealized images of street scenes, lighthouses, country cottages and landscapes. It is a world without sharp edges, all warm and fuzzily aglow with setting suns and streetlights and luminescent windows.

Critics have described Kinkade's works -- with titles such as "Sunset on Lamplight Lane" and "The Garden of Prayer" -- as little more than mass-produced kitsch. But that has not deterred the multitudes who pay from a few hundred dollars for paper prints to $10,000 or more for canvas editions he has signed and retouched.

"It's mainstream art, not art you have to look at to try to understand, or have an art degree to know whether it's good or not," said Mike Koligman, a longtime fan who with his wife owns Kinkade galleries in San Diego and Utah.

Karen de la Carriere feels the same way. Framed Kinkades fill her living room walls and have transformed a long hallway into a veritable gantlet of glowing lithographs. Kinkade's art is both a personal passion and a business for the Los Angeles resident, who deals in the resale market for Kinkades, selling more than $25,000 of his works each month on eBay and her website.

"This is God-given talent," she said of a favored print, "Sierra Evening Majesty," with its snowy peaks, red-gold skies and smoke wisping from a cabin chimney. "He is a modern-day Leonardo da Vinci or Monet. There is no one in our generation who can paint like that."

Nor many who make the money he does.

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