SXSW 2023 Interview: Miranda Yousef on Capturing All the Different Shades of Thomas Kinkade in “Art for Everybody”

Some time early on in “Art For Everybody,” Patrick Kinkade makes an observation about his brother Thomas’ paintings that eluded most in the art world who failed to take his work seriously, remembering about one of the many anodyne cottage portraits he came to be known for as the “Painter of Light,” that in their own upbringing together, “We’d always come home to a cold, dark house and [in his work], there was always a lamp to show someone was waiting.”

That sense of comfort resonated with millions who bought Kinkade’s work during the late ‘80s through the ‘90s with the painter being a shrewd enough businessman to realize instead of limiting his work to oil canvases, he could mass produce them as prints and with widespread success, financial security was never in question as it is for most artists, but what could nag at him was a question of depth by those in the art world where he was easily dismissed.

Director Miranda Yousef doesn’t expect audiences to find a greater meaning in the landscape paintings that made Kinkade so ubiquitous it literally became wallpaper, among other merchandising that allowed him to build an empire, but she does compel a closer look at the person behind them, once an art student with aspirations of being as well known as Picasso and to achieve it, only by being seen as his polar opposite in terms of legitimacy. With access to the Kinkade family’s voluminous archives, Yousef makes extraordinary use of personal recordings and home videos as well as the early paintings that have been locked away in “the vault” to suggest the person Kinkade dreamed of becoming while presenting who he actually was, a duality that extended well into every other facet of his life beyond his professional calling and strives to make sense of his untimely passing in 2012 at age 54.

While “Art for Everybody” would be fascinating for Kinkade’s story alone as he found a niche and built his business, the film provocatively digs into the greater cultural headwinds that Kinkade took advantage of to rise to prominence, tapping into America’s religious right for a prime consumer group and positioning himself in stark contrast to controversial figures such as the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. To learn he was once a background painter for the envelope-pushing animator Ralph Bakshi (who for the record thinks Kinkade should be held up as a genius whose work “reflects the cheapness of our society”) is one of many revelations bound to take audiences by surprise as family and friends recall someone deeply engaged with the culture around him, even if his output would suggest a distance from it.

With the film making its premiere this week at SXSW, Yousef graciously spoke about how she made such a thrilling transition from being a longtime editor on such films as “Art & Crimes by Crimes” and “The New Bauhaus” to the director’s chair, unearthing such incredibly insightful personal items to tell the story of Kinkade and giving his work, however one may feel about it, its due for the serious place it occupies in the culture.

How did this come about?

As a filmmaker, I’m always looking for stories that can talk about larger cultural and human themes, but told through the lens of a really compelling character story and Thomas Kinkade has this in spades. He’s this larger than life character who lived a Greek tragedy of a life and his life engaged with these important moments in American cultural history in such a way that I [thought] we could talk about really big ideas like what is art and who gets to decide and the politicization of taste. [Since] we’re living in such a polarized society right now, probably the most important thing to me was to taking a look at the culture wars [which] he was engaging with from the very beginning. The writer James Davison Hunter, who wrote the book in 1991 called “Culture Wars” and coined the term, was recently talking about how “culture wars don’t always end in shooting wars, but shooting wars always come after a culture war because culture provides the justifications for violence,” [which made] this is very clearly relevant and very timely.

Did you actually have the Kinkade family’s involvement at the start of this or did that come along later?

There was enough about him in the public record to be of interest because if you lived through that time when he was at his peak, you remembered the “Painter of Light” [moniker] and what a huge cultural phenomenon he was. But then you also maybe remembered like a little bit later towards the end of his life, the scandals that started to come out, and [how] he was clearly a troubled person and died this tragic death, so [I knew] there’s something there, but I didn’t have any idea like how complex of a person but [also as] an artist until we got touched with the Kinkade family. Then it was like, “Oh there’s this vault and there’s this other body of work that’s dark and psychologically complex,” so that just broke it [open].

Could you actually find a story in the art that you might not have gotten from the interviews?

Absolutely and because the Kinkade family, and the daughters especially, were the people who made this discovery, it really clearly was like, “Oh, this is a different aspect of this person and a side or facet to his humanity.” It’s very clear in the style of the “Painter of Light” works, [which is] how we refer to the stuff that he was famous for and really marketing, they are very precise and we have all this footage of him painting them. He’s using incredibly fine brush strokes and it’s layer upon layer upon layer of paint. Then the unseen works are much more slapdash and almost free, which is something that we also talk about in the movie. When we talk about his Planar works, which is where you go out and you sit and paint from life as opposed to a studio setting, one thing I was trying to show in the film, like especially in the Planar section is you can see how globby the paint is on the surface of the canvas and it’s like just not the same thing [he was doing later].

The art really is almost like a two-dimensional projection of the three-dimensional performance artist aspect of Thomas Kinkade because because he was very prescient about creating a brand. In this social media TikTok world that we’re in today, we’re seeing it with everyone, right? He was branding himself personally in a very particular way and in addition to that pressure, he got his work everywhere, [doing] what Andy Warhol really wanted to do, which is talked about in the film. He was very brilliant and innovative in terms of exploiting the artistic reproductive technologies of the time to be able to get his work on everything from canvas prints to coffee mugs and when I was talking to the family, they individually had each talked about how he was putting on this persona of the “Painter of Light” and then Susan Orlean, the author of the 2001 New Yorker article about Kinkade, which first brought him to prominence with the coastal elites, you might say, [said] completely of her own accord, “Well you could think of him as a performance artist,” and I was like, “Yes, we have our movie.”

Was it actually harder to find art critics who might take him seriously enough to talk about? I know Christopher Knight, the great L.A. Times columnist, shows up, but he rolls his eyes at first.

There were people who were like, “I don’t want to be talking about Thomas Kinkade” or “I don’t have anything to say,” but I was really happy with the people that we did manage to [get] and [there’s] almost this trap that Kinkade created for himself. One of the really most surprising things that I learned when I was working on it was how incredibly well-educated he was about art history and how up to date he kept himself with where the art world was at the time. He really was steeped in it, but because he created this folksy persona and exploiting a cultural divide, he created this issue for himself, which was one that bothered him. He wanted to be taken seriously by the critical community but because he had this incredibly commercially successful brand, he had trouble doing that.

There are so many dualities you see throughout and the film itself has to go back in some ways halfway through to recontextualize who this person really was. Was it tricky to figure out structurally?

I had a pretty good idea broadly speaking of how I thought it should be structured [where initially I thought] we should remind people who he was and what a huge deal he was, but then be like, “But there’s something you don’t know.” I figured that after we do get there and set up the vault, it would be good to set up who he was aspiring to be. but then start to peel back the layers of the ending and really that’s what the movie is trying to do. Every few minutes you’re learning something new that takes you deeper and deeper into an understanding of who his character was and it’s a classic rise and fall story. It’s also a family story that’s very complex and rich, but it had a built-in drama to it, and that was good. I’ve been an editor for a long time. and I tend to try to find ways to use whatever’s happening in that chronological story to jump backwards into his past.

What was it like talking to his children? They all seem to have a different relationship to him.

Yeah, they were pretty frank with me that as he got deeper and deeper into the persona and more and more consumed by the business, it changed how he was able to relate to each kid. The oldest one, Merritt, was born when he was painting for galleries and he wasn’t yet the “Painter of Light.” Then his second daughter Chandler was born when he was starting to take off with the whole cottage industry [literally], and it was either that year or the following year that they trademarked the name “Painter of Light,” so by the time Winsor, the third one who’s the artist, comes along, the company has already gone public and it’s this huge phenomenon, so I do think that they each had a very different experience and they all amongst themselves agree that that’s the case, so they kinda got a different dad.

There’s obviously so much archival material to work from, including a lot of unexpected keepsakes like the letters that were written to him about how meaningful his work was. What was it like to put together that sequence?

He got letters from all kinds of people, and it was important to have that in the film. I just want to acknowledge that I had an incredible team working on this with me – I would not have been able to do this all by myself, so I was like, “This is what we’re looking for in the letters,” and there were letters [where the person writing was] like, “I can’t find this particular work. Can you help me complete my collection?” And that’s not what this [film] is about, but the stuff that’s in the movie, [is all about how] his work really touches a person at a vulnerable moment in their life and gives them something positive. I was really committed to the idea of having the viewing experience for somebody who would be skeptical of Kinkade, like they can be going along and agreeing with the critics and the critics have their say, which they’re perfectly justified in what they say, but then to also be like, can you still maintain your idea of whether this art is art or has value or doesn’t have value after you’ve seen that sequence with the fan letters.

You also find an incredible audio recording from when he’s 16 years old that becomes a through line. How did you come across that?

That was amazing. We actually had to rent a van, and it was completely filled with beta and TV tapes and audio cassettes. It was not just the corporate videos and branding videos that he did. It was also home movies and these audio cassettes that he started to record in 1974. That was just amazing because he was already thinking about “Who am I as an artist and what do I want to do?”. And I hope people will watch the film and see this very common conflict that artists of all kinds have, which is like, “I want to be great. I want to be Van Gogh. I want to be critically acclaimed and I want to be great. But I also want to eat. I want to be commercially successful.”

That’s what I took away from it. What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

I’m so thrilled to be here premiering at a South by Southwest because it’s such a cultural festival — it’s not just film, and that seems really appropriate for a film about an artist who really impacted culture. And the South By audience is fantastic, so I’m like really looking forward to being able to share it with people. My hope for the film is that people will take away a renewed understanding of how important it is to treat each other with nuance and compassion, even if somebody has different political ideas or different life experiences from you. I feel that our current political discourse and social media landscape and all these other things have conspired to encourage us to dehumanize each other and [that] we need to rehumanize each other in order to be able to move forward as a society.

It’s a huge accomplishment, especially for being your first time as a director. Was the experience any different from the projects you’ve worked on as an editor?

I just absolutely loved it. When you’re editing, in documentary, you do have a lot more creative input than a fiction or scripted editor would have in their projects. You oftentimes have all these other roles in addition to being the editor and you’re writing the film with a director. In this case, I had to be able to put on that other hat where it’s a bigger and bigger view. And, you know, editors don’t get to do fun press interviews. [laughs]

“Art for Everybody” will screen at SXSW on March 16th at 12:30 pm at Violet Crown Cinema 1 and 1 pm at the Violet Crown Cinema 3.

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