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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.
By Kim Christensen
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

March 5, 2006

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.

From 1997 through May 2005, Kinkade reaped more than $50 million in royalties from his prints and licensed product lines, according to testimony in the recently decided arbitration case. His images adorn air fresheners, night lights, teddy bears, toys, tote bags, pillows, umbrellas and La-Z-Boy loungers, which one retailer's ad describes as "something not merely to be acquired, but collected — like fine art itself."

As he built his brand, Kinkade also came to embody its underlying themes of faith, family and life's blessings. He speaks lovingly of his childhood sweetheart, Nanette — whom he married in 1982 — and their four daughters, calling his family "my proudest achievement in life."

Often, he embeds their initials or images in his paintings. Sometimes he joins them there.

"There's Thom on his Harley," a saleswoman at one of the original Kinkade galleries, on Monterey's Cannery Row, said as she showed a visitor a print of "San Francisco, Lombard Street." Hanging nearby was "New York, Fifth Avenue," with Thom and one of his daughters in a '57 Chevy convertible.

Such whimsy illustrates the lighter side of the Kinkade his supporters say is genial and genuine, a "regular guy" with small-town roots. He also has raised millions for charities, including the Salvation Army and Make-A-Wish Foundation.

But a far more selfish portrait of the artist emerges from legal action brought by former gallery owners against Kinkade, Media Arts Group Inc. — the public company he has since taken private — and some who helped build it into a $250-million-a-year retail juggernaut before its sales flagged and its stock tanked.

Ex-dealers allege that the artist used his faith — and manipulated theirs — to induce them to invest in Thomas Kinkade Signature Galleries, independently owned stores licensed to deal exclusively in his work. They also contend he sought to devalue the company before buying it back two years ago for $32.7 million, renaming it Thomas Kinkade Co.

Company executives and lawyers contend that a steep drop in the number of Signature galleries, which have dwindled to fewer than half of the 350 that once existed, is a result of a broad decline in the limited-edition art business, hastened by the dot-com crash, a shrinking economy and the Sept. 11 attacks.

"Many dealers had the ability to weather the effects of the recession; some dealers did not," said Chief Executive Dan Byrne.

But such arguments failed to persuade the arbitration panel, which on Feb. 23 ruled in favor of the former Virginia gallery owners, Karen Hazlewood and Jeffrey Spinello.

The panel found that the company and one of its executives, Richard F. Barnett, defrauded the couple by failing to disclose pertinent information that would have dissuaded them from investing $122,000 to open the first of their two galleries in 1999.

The interim award of $860,000, based on a decision that Kinkade's lawyer said he would seek to void, could quadruple when interest, legal fees and other costs are added, said the former dealers' Michigan lawyer, Norman Yatooma, whose firm is also handling the five pending arbitration claims.

Kinkade himself has been dismissed from the Hazlewood-Spinello claim, so obligation for payment of the award would fall to his solely owned company, and to Barnett, said Yatooma's associate, Joseph Ejbeh.

Though the panel did not single out the artist in its fraud finding, it wrote that he and other Media Arts Group executives had created "a certain religious environment designed to instill a special relationship of trust" with the couple, who have since divorced. The company, communicating through Kinkade and the others, often used terms such as "partner," "trust," "Christian" and "God" to convey a sense of "higher calling," the panel wrote.

Although Kinkade has said he does not market specifically to Christians, his limited-edition canvas prints bear the familiar Christian fish symbol and are inscribed with a biblical reference, "John 3:16." He also is fond of quoting Matthew 5:16 — "Let your light shine before men" — at times sounding more evangelist than artist.

"I love to talk about my faith," he said in a deposition. "I try to embrace people with love, unconditional love, like Christ did."

Former dealer Jim Cote said he was hard-pressed to feel the love. He has filed an arbitration claim, alleging among other things that he was a victim of Media Arts Group's pressure to saturate the market.

"In the beginning it was fine," said Cote, of Birmingham, Mich., who opened his first Signature gallery in 1996. "Sales were great because Thom at that point was very popular and there were limited outlets to buy his art."

But as time went on, Cote alleges, Media Arts Group pushed him to open more galleries, threatening to set up its own outlets in his territory. Cote eventually had three stores, all of which failed.

"This is not bread and milk," he said. "You can't have galleries on every corner."

Cote said his net worth of more than $3 million had been erased. Gone are his marriage, his house and most of his possessions. He doesn't blame his divorce entirely on his galleries' failure, he said, but "it certainly didn't help."

He shut his last store in December and has filed for bankruptcy protection.

"At this point, I've got a dog and an apartment, and that's it," Cote said. "This is not where I thought I'd be at 56."

Kinkade's lawyers deny Cote's allegations.

As Hazlewood, Spinello, Cote and other Signature gallery owners were faltering, the company's stock plummeted from a high of nearly $25 a share to less than $3. Former dealers allege that Kinkade allowed them to sink in order to drive down the stock price, so he could buy back the company at a bargain basement price — a charge the artist and his lawyer said was absurd.

"There was no conspiracy to shoot ourselves in the foot," Kinkade testified in the arbitration case that was just decided. "Nobody wanted to hurt the dealers."

Kinkade, who co-founded the company as Lightpost Publishing in 1989 and took it public in 1994, bought it back in 2004 for $4 a share. Investors who had put their faith and their fortunes in the Painter of Light — a moniker he trademarked — were left holding a mostly empty bag.

"I took a bloodbath, an absolute bloodbath," said De la Carriere, the Los Angeles art dealer, who said she invested her inheritance in Media Arts Group stock at more than $20 a share.

But even as the company ran aground, Kinkade and others in top positions prospered, according to testimony.

From 1997 through May 2005, Kinkade earned $53 million for his work, the company's assistant controller testified. That figure includes $11.8 million from top-of-the-line "studio proofs," small-edition canvas prints that Kinkade personally retouched, or "highlighted"— with as much as 65% of the profit going to him.

Kinkade wasn't the only one who got rich.

Barnett, then head of retail sales and now an executive vice president, also made millions as the Signature galleries were failing. Unbeknownst to the dealers, he reaped commissions on all art sold to them at wholesale, averaging more than $2 million a year for 1999, 2000 and 2001, according to testimony.

The arbitration panel found that the company and Barnett, who ran a training program for prospective gallery owners known as Thomas Kinkade University, "painted an unrealistic and misleading picture of the prospects for success" and never warned potential investors of the inherent risks.

"We were told success story after success story, and of course the 'Thom story' and his Christian views and the way he runs his life," Spinello told the arbitration panel in late 2004.

Just as it has revealed the inner workings of Kinkade's business, the dealer litigation also has delved into his personal conduct, which witnesses testified was often at odds with the God-fearing image he projected.

In testimony and interviews with The Times, Sheppard and other former employees said they often went with Kinkade to strip clubs and bars, where he frequently became intoxicated and out of control.

John Dandois, Media Arts Group's senior director of retail operations from 1995 to 1999, testified in a hearing that the artist was a sort of Jekyll-and-Hyde character, whose behavior worsened as the alcohol flowed.

"Thom would be fine, he would be drinking, and then all of a sudden, you couldn't tell where the boundary was," he said. "And then he became very incoherent, and he would start cussing and doing a lot of weird stuff."

Dandois, who left the company to become chief executive of a group of galleries owned by Kinkade's brother, Patrick, recounted that about six years ago the artist was so intoxicated during a performance by Siegfried & Roy in Las Vegas that people seated nearby moved away from him.

"I think it was Roy or Siegfried or whatever had a codpiece in his leotards," Dandois testified. "And so when the show started, Thom just started yelling, 'Codpiece, codpiece,' and had to be quieted by his mother and Nanette."

At other times, Kinkade could be downright nasty, Dandois testified, recalling an incident in which Dandois' wife tried to help the allegedly inebriated artist to his feet in a bar.

"He had been falling down, and he fell off the stool, and he was laying on the ground and just looked up at her and flipped her the bird and told her, you know, just to 'F you' several times," Dandois testified.

In an interview, Sheppard, who often accompanied Kinkade on the road, recounted a trip to Orange County in the late 1990s for the artist's appearance on the "Hour of Power" television show at the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove. On the eve of the broadcast, Sheppard said, he and Kinkade returned to the Disneyland Hotel after a night of heavy drinking. As they walked to their rooms, according to Sheppard and another person who was there, Kinkade veered toward a nearby figure of a Disney character.

"Thom wanders over to Winnie the Pooh and decides to 'mark his territory,' " Sheppard told The Times.

In a deposition, the artist alluded to his practice of urinating outdoors, saying he "grew up in the country" where it was common. When pressed about allegedly relieving himself in a hotel elevator in Las Vegas, Kinkade said it might have happened.

"There may have been some ritual territory marking going on, but I don't recall it," he said.

Kinkade's memory also was fuzzy when he was asked during the arbitration proceedings about a signing party in Indiana that went awry in August 2002.

Held at a South Bend hotel, the party began sedately enough as Kinkade met with a group of Signature gallery owners to sign stacks of prints. Some who were there say it was a goodwill gesture by the artist to smooth relations with dealers, who could sell the signed pieces at a premium.

After the larger group dispersed, Kinkade and others moved to a smaller room for a private signing with Michigan gallery owner Cote and some of his employees. Champagne was served, then hard liquor. By various accounts, most of the partyers overindulged, including Kinkade and Cote.

At one point, according to testimony and interviews with Cote and three others who were there, Kinkade polled the men in the room about their preferences in women's anatomies.

"He was having a conversation with the men in the room about whether they like breasts or butts," said Lori Kopec, Cote's director of gallery operations, who also testified about the party. "There were only two women in the room, and I was very uncomfortable at that point."

It was during that bawdy discussion, according to arbitration records, that Kinkade turned his attention to the other woman.

"He approached [her] and he palmed her breasts and he said, 'These are great tits!' " Ernie Dodson, another Cote employee, told The Times, adding that he drank no alcohol that night. "I was just standing in the corner in amazement. It was like, holy cow!"

The woman whom Kinkade allegedly fondled confirmed to The Times that he touched her breasts without her consent. She spoke on condition of anonymity, saying she was embarrassed and concerned for her family's privacy.

Cote and Kopec said they also saw the alleged groping.

"She let out a yelp and backed away," Kopec said. "That's when I knew he had actually touched her."

Kinkade testified in a deposition that excessive drinking and "some normal rowdy talk" had taken place, but when confronted with the groping allegation, he denied touching the woman.

"But you've got to remember," he said, "I'm the idol to these women who are there. They sell my work every day, you know. They're enamored with any attention I would give them. I don't know what kind of flirting they were trying to do with me. I don't recall what was going on that night."

In response to The Times' written questions, Kinkade did not address any specific incident.

"It does disappoint me when people I have tried to help and befriend make crazy allegations about me," he said. "I am a big fan of imagination, but the specific allegations you have described to me are ridiculous and I feel like the victim of a legal stalker."

He described himself as "an average, hard-working guy who just happens to be a famous artist" and said he didn't take himself too seriously.

In the recent arbitration case, he also testified that he had never claimed to be perfect.

"Book of Ecclesiastes says enjoy yourself, have a glass of wine, for this is God's will for you," he said. "It's never consistent with God's will that we behave in a sinful way; however, God also loves us and accepts us and understands that at times we have our failings."
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