Seeker of Faith, Painter of Light

Seeker of Faith, Painter of Light

In Memoriam: A Guideposts classic story by artist Thomas Kinkade, who died on Good Friday 2012.

Thomas Kinkade with one of his paintings

One afternoon, early in my career, I attended a showing of my work in a small gallery in northern California.

Among the people who stopped by to see my paintings, there was a man who wandered in off the street, saw the brightly lit artwork (as well as the complimentary hors d'oeuvres!) and decided to stroll around the show. After making his rounds, he pulled up beside me.

"So," he said, "why does this Kinkade guy have all the lights on in his paintings?"

"I couldn't tell you," I confessed.

"Well, if you see him," said the man, "ask him for me."

In a sense, I have spent my career trying to answer that question.

When I was a child, I would come home after school and our house would often stand empty, dark and cold. I'd hope, as I approached, that the lights would come on suddenly—that someone would swing open the door and wave and smile as I quickened my step.

I could hope, but I knew that no one would be home. My father had left us when I was little, so my mother worked late as a secretary to support the family. My brother and sisters frequently got home from school after I did.

I would scuff my heels along the sidewalks beside shadowy hedges and sycamore trees. I would stop and study a bird's nest or some wildflowers or perhaps the way wood smoke curled out of chimneys on cool days, but mostly I'd look at all the other houses I passed, the lights on in their windows, the brightness so inviting I wanted to dash up and ring the bell and wait to be offered some cookies and warm cinnamon milk.

When I finally reached my house, I was hesitant to open the door and go in. It was more than just being afraid of the dark. The lights within other houses on our street filled me with longing. I wished the whole world could be lit up like those houses. Even as a latchkey kid, I was a bit of a romantic.

By no means would I describe my childhood as a miserable one. Nothing could be further from the truth: In the foothills of the California Sierras, in the small town of Placerville, we Kinkade children—I, my older sisters and younger brother—enjoyed a blessed upbringing.

My brother and I made a tree house in our backyard and rolled go-carts down our drive. We would attend services at a country church down the lane from our house, the Kinkade clan taking up the length of a pew.

I would sit mesmerized not by the voice from the pulpit, but by the blue glass windows overhead and flickering yellow lights of the candles at the altar.

The Placerville of 35 years ago was an innocent place and time, the kind of town where we could ride our bikes to Main Street for a haircut and a bag of dime-store popcorn without our mother worrying, where a boy could deliver the local paper to the door of a pretty girl who would one day become his wife.

And it was a place where a boy could have his dream of becoming a painter nourished, his ever-supportive mother framing his drawings on the living room wall, right next to inexpensive prints by his heroes, Norman Rockwell and Rembrandt.

After high school, I took all my romantic aspirations and small-town innocence with me to the University of California at Berkeley. I wanted to become an artist of the people, a communicator with paint, the next Norman Rockwell.

I had a desire to touch people's lives with my paintings, and I believed that if I could be true to myself, if I could express my feelings and paint from my heart, my work would speak to people. Why else would I want to paint but to share the joy and light I felt inside with others?

Talk about culture shock! My homespun values were about to clash with twentieth-century intellectualism. No one at Berkeley seemed to find much merit in my idealistic approach. People were creating art around dark or pessimistic themes, exploring tortured inner feelings, childhood pain and personal insecurities.

My fellow students urged me to get in touch with inner demons. My paintings were deemed clichéd and sentimental and outdated.

I suppose I should be grateful for that period of my life, for the way my beliefs were tested. But at the time, each class hour felt like a blow to the stomach, my professors all fighting to tear down my idealism. To them, artwork was supposed to shock and disturb the viewer, not provide comfort and joy.

In my dorm room at night, I would lie awake, plagued by doubts. I worried that my professors had it right, that my vision was naive and simplistic. The light began to fade from my dream.

By the end of the year, I gave up on the art program altogether and switched to the College of Liberal Arts, studying literature and humanities. With each spare hour I had, I painted alone in a basement studio and did illustrations for a local newspaper, but every day was a struggle to discover how I could ever become the painter I'd vowed to be.

I'd pray for counsel, but didn't have any answer besides quietly painting and drawing and keeping my creative flame alive through work and hope. Then one day a friend asked me to a revival meeting and, to my surprise, I said yes.

I was 22 years old and I'd not gone to church regularly since I'd left home. I remembered the lights and glass and burning candles of my hometown chapel. Maybe the smell of a church would lift my spirits.

But the auditorium was dark and uninviting, part of an abandoned college, and I wondered what good could come out of a place as dreary as this. With its faded drapes and dusty windows, I couldn't see the slightest promise of light in the place.

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