Thomas Kinkade: A Success

<b>Morley Safer</b> Interviews Artist Who's Also Master Marketer

Who is the artist who has sold more canvases than any other painter in history? More than Picasso, Rembrandt, Gaughin, Monet, Manet, Renoir and Van Gogh combined?

If you didn't say Thomas Kinkade, then you've been shopping in the wrong places. He is the most collected living artist in the U.S. and worldwide.

He produces paintings by the container load. And he is to art what Henry Ford was to automobiles.

"Everyone can identify with a fragrant garden, with the beauty of sunset, with the quiet of nature, with a warm and cozy cottage," says Kinkade, who is a one-man cottage industry.

You can find Candlelight Cottage, Twilight Cottage, Cottage by the Sea, Sweetheart Cottage, Foxglove Cottage, and Teacup Cottage.

For variety, you can find lighthouses, old time street scenes and gardens by the gazillion. And if you like six sugars in your coffee, as Correspondent Morley Safer first reported in late 2001, these are the paintings for you.

"I like the colors that he uses. And I like the way that he uses the light. And I like the subjects that he paints," says Cindy DuBois. She and her husband, Rod, of Mission Viejo, Calif., can only be described as devoted.

"I'll look at a painting of one of his cottages, and I'll see there's smoke coming out of the fireplace. And I'll begin to wonder who's inside there and what are they doing. Do they have hot chocolate? Is it a cold night? And they're enjoying themselves," says Rod DuBois. "So it kind of lets you think a little more about that scene and what you would be doing if you were actually there."

While some art lovers might head for New York, Paris or Florence, Kinkade fans make their pilgrimage to quaint and cozy Placerville, Calif., where the master grew up.

On a sunny weekend afternoon, members of Kinkade Collectors' Society paid for the privilege of gathering in Placerville, afloat in wine, baroque music and warm conversational buzz. They have plenty in common -- many of them own the same paintings.

"There's been million-seller books and million-seller CDs. But there hasn't been, until now, million-seller art," says Kinkade. "We have found a way to bring to millions of people, an art that they can understand."

It's art and the power of marketing and multiplication. Craig Fleming, the CEO of Kinkade's company, explained the unique Kinkade cloning process.

It just takes a few dabs of paint, and presto, each canvas - worth $1,000 to $50,000 - is framed. The operation is huge. More than 400 employees work in the vast garret, where forklifts, power tools and assembly lines push the artist's vision out the door to more than 350 Kinkade galleries in the United States and overseas. More than 600 others are being planned.

"Tom paints every single painting that we produce," says Fleming. "It's still an original Kinkade as far as we're concerned."

Picasso, that titan of 20th century art, was a rank amateur when it came to marketing.

How does Kinkade regard Picasso? "I don't believe, in time, that he will be regarded as the titan that he is now," says Kinkade. "He is a man of great talent who, to me, used it to create three Picassos before breakfast because he could get $10,000 each for them."

"There's over 40 walls in the average American home, and Tom says our job is to figure out how to populate every single wall in every single home and every single business throughout the world with his paintings," says Fleming.

And that's not as preposterous as it sounds. Just drop into the DuBois house, which is covered from wall to wall with Kinkades.

"I really, really like them, and the more I look at them, the more I look at them and the more I see," says Cindy DuBois.

"We have tried to hang as many as we can," adds Rod DuBois. "But no, we can't hang 'em all. But we're on a rotation program now."

The collection has cost the couple approximately $150,000 so far. They say they're powerless to stop. "Can't stay out. We can't stay out," says Cindy DuBois. "It's hard even to stay out of the gallery locally for more than a couple weeks. We get withdrawals."

"There is a genius in what we've done," says Kinkade.

And the genius is in playing against the image of traditional art galleries, which Kinkade says are intimidating.

"Now picture our galleries. Our galleries are soft. You don't echo when you walk in. It's comfortable. There's a fireplace burning. There's a person sitting here who's not an art expert," says Kinkade.

"We don't hire art experts. We hire people who love art and love people. And when you walk in, you're greeted, and the experience is entirely different."

But what about the critics? Most have never heard of Kinkade or totally ignore him, as he laughs his way to the bank.

Kenneth Baker, critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, barely conceals his contempt: "He has a vocabulary, as most painters do. And it's a vocabulary of formulas, unfortunately. And he shuffles the deck every so often. Lighthouse, cottage, sea, ships, sky, so on, so on. Little bit of waves, so on, rocks. And you end up with this."

"These paintings may be easy to call insignificant by a critic, but they are precious to the people who bring them into their home," says Kinkade.

Would fans such as Rod DuBois ever consider buying something a little edgier, or challenging, like a Picasso print?

"The problem I always have with Picassos is there's always an art critic trying to explain what it means," says Rod DuBois. "And I don't need people to explain what it means. If I like it, I like it. If I don't, I don't."

Kinkade has struck a serious nerve and a vein of pure gold in America's heartland. And he is relentless in exploiting himself, his family and of course, God.

"My wife and I do pray over these paintings. Thank you," says Kinkade. "And we do believe that God can speak through beauty."

He says that his art is not just art -- it's a powerful force.

"Art is forever. It goes front and center on your wall, where everyday the rest of your life you see that image. And it is shaping your children, it's shaping your life," says Kinkade.

"What I paint touches on foundational life values. Home, family, peacefulness. And one of the messages I try to constantly get across is slow it down and enjoy every moment."

However, Kinkade barnstormed through Texas on a sales-boosting mission like a possessed Willy Loman -- adding lighting signatures to canvases that collectors waiting outside have agreed to buy. These signatures add value, but even more value is added with another personal touch.

"My passion was to find a way that I could get the prints to look like an original," says Kinkade. "I was playing around with oil paint in my studio. And this was the fatal mistake. I put the highlight strokes on there. And it came to life."

When a canvas has felt the touch of Kinkade's brush, it may be worth $50,000. But since he can?t do it all, he has dozens of hired hands to help. Their touch of the brush is less expensive, but regardless, product must be moved.

And at QVC, The Home Shopping Channel, Kinkade says his art has "sold upwards of $1 million an hour."

Kinkade, however, sells more than his art. There is a whole array of Kinkade-branded items on the market.

"Thomas Kinkade is a multi-dimensional lifestyle brand, similar to Martha Stewart or Ralph Lauren," says Kinkade.

"You can put a Thomas Kinkade couch beneath your Thomas Kinkade painting. Next to the Thomas Kinkade couch goes the Thomas Kinkade end table. On top of that goes your collection of Thomas Kinkade books, Thomas Kinkade collectibles, Thomas Kinkade throw rugs. You can snuggle your Thomas Kinkade teddy bear."

And, he adds, "You can put all of that inside your new Thomas Kinkade home in the Thomas Kinkade subdivision."

More than 100 homes, all modeled on his cutesy, cozy cottages, have been built in Vallejo, Calif., outside San Francisco.

"This is ad nauseam, I know, to some people. But hear me out. My goodness. Walt Disney wasn't satisfied just making a movie. He said, 'I wanna invite people to step into that world,' and he built Disneyland," says Kinkade. "We view my work and my cultural identity, in a way, as heir to the Walt Disney kind of tradition."

The DuBois family, however, has no plans to move to Kinkade World. They don't need to. They're already there. Their collection has now grown to 239.

As for Kinkade, he spent $37 million to take his company private in January, but his empire is not what it once was. The number of galleries has fallen to less than 200, and a group of dealers is suing Kinkade and his company, alleging they were misled about the potential profits in selling Kinkade artwork.