My husband Wes likes to tease me about my least favorite “artist” of all time, Thomas Kinkaid. You know him from the schlocky mall painting stores of your childhood. The ones that featured a snug log cabin with yellow light pouring onto the cool blue snow, which also happens to be just next to a dime-sized skating pond with someone bathed in light and twirling. And maybe there’s like a bridge with a horse-drawn carriage.
You get the scene. Thomas is also known for mass-producing his paintings by teaching minions how to paint in his style, and then marking up any painting that had even a brush stroke from the master. He died of alcoholism in 2012, leaving drunk driving and possible domestic abuse in his wake.
Beyond even his paintings, you can see why I have a dislike of Thomas.
“You’re the painter of light”, Wes will tell me in a feathery voice. He’s mocking Thomas’s brand, and emphasizing what people often first notice about my paintings.
I do favor bold, contrasting colors and light; and often will heighten these contrasts in a painting – both deliberately and subconsciously – to bring out the drama.
I think the (well, one) difference between Thomas and me is I’m painting to draw out authentic beauty from the world we share. I want my paintings to serve as a reminder to myself and others that we are connected to and lucky enough to experience some of the most magnificent experiences available in our lifetime, and we need to take those in.
Thomas was painting a fantasy. The world in his paintings exists in music boxes, Macy’s displays, and the Christmastown Jack discovers in the Nightmare Before Christmas. His paintings aren’t whimsical; they’re nostalgic and schlocky in the worst kind of way because they’re affirming something that doesn’t even exist, which gives people a false sense of direction and hope. Life has literally never been a twirling ice skater next to a horse drawn carriage while merriment carries on in the adjacent cabin; unless you’re at an expensive and well-curated resort (and even then I will bet the family is actually arguing).
This time of year especially, as the light in Alaska is at its lowest and family drama is getting stirred for at least the second time in as many months, authenticity and connection are important for survival. I’ve been trying to ground myself in what matters most, and meditate on the light. It’s small right now; it isn’t what I want it to be, and I can feel the twist of darkness on my mental health. But the light is there, fragile and beautiful.
Right now my studio has little windows into the power, subtlety, and incredible contrasts of low winter light cast on different scenes in Alaska. Sunsets, alpenglow, Christmas lights, and a low sun through snowy trees are scenes we routinely see, but get used to. I think paintings, at their best and most honest, can help focus attention on what’s all around me in a way that lets me see more, and even let in more light.