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Published in the Columbia Daily Tribune 17 September 2006

Livin' Large, Kinkade Style

OK, if you love the works of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™, just stop reading right now.  It'll save both of us a lot of electrons.  No, seriously.  My Overlords at the Tribune probably won't like me telling readers to take a hike, but I mean it - if you like the insipid commercial crap that is passed off as art by Kinkade, you might as well stop reading right now.  Because I am about to launch into a rant about your favorite artist.  If, however, you have a modicum of taste, and see the whole Kinkade phenomenon as little more than a scam perpetrated in the finest tradition of WC Fields ("Never give a sucker an even break."), then join me in a soul-screech over news that we have a Kinkade Housing Development about to be inflicted on us here in the fair town of Columbia.

Everyone ready?  Altogether now, scream:  "AAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!"

It helps.  Really, it does.

It was HL Mencken (or maybe PT Barnum, depending on who you believe) who said "No one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American people."  This has been the genius of Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™.  And I think it best explains the reason we're about to see 85 acres of land east of town on WW turned into an homage to Kinkade's aesthetic fantasy.

Housing developers are in the business to make money.  They provide a service, and if people like the homes they build at the price offered, they do well.  You can get into legitimate issues about sprawl, and whether they're good for the community or environment, but the simple fact is that this is largely an area where the free market operates.  Personally, I like homes with a little bit of character and individual design, but I'm married to an architect and so biased in this regard.  There are lots of subdivisions all across the land which feature homes with varying degrees of ticky-tacky.  It's part of our culture.

Now there's a 600+ acre subdivision being developed by Billy Sapp on WW to be called "Old Hawthorne," which will have something like a thousand homes in it.  According to the Kinkade company website, part of this subdivision will include about 100 'McMansions' in the $500,000 - million dollar range, constructed by HST Group, LLC out of Idaho, under the moniker "The Gates at Old Hawthorne."  They are intentionally trying to translate the saccharine sentimentality of Kinkade's paintings into a selection of homes for people who want to live in a quiet English hamlet where the light is perpetually wierd.  I suppose you could bring your collection of Kinkade prints (most of his work sold is in the form of prints of varying degrees of quality - some of them touched up, or as the Kinkade company prefers to call it "highlighted" by "master highlighters"), your Kinkade Nativity Tree, your Kinkade Christmas Ornaments, your Kinkade Charm Bracelets, and for all I know your Kinkade toilet-seat covers, and put them in your new 4,000 square-foot Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™ - inspired home.

Whether the development will live up to expectations will have to be seen.  HST has another development underway in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, on 20 acres of land overlooking Lake Coeur d'Alene, but the homes there range between $4 and 6 million, and groundbreaking just started this summer.  An earlier development associated with Kinkade (but built by another developer) outside of San Francisco called "The Village at Hiddenbrooke" sold out of homes priced up to $400,000 (quite inexpensive by Bay Area standards), but was widely panned (see the 2002 article by Janelle Brown in Salon) for both the aesthetics of the architecture and quality of the construction.

So I don't know what the final product will look like.  But HST Director of Architectural Design Rann Haight says on the Kinkade company website:  "We will also be concentrating our efforts on creating a village atmosphere and neighborhood streetscapes such as those found in Thomas Kinkade's painting, Lamplight Lane."  Taking him at his word, that's more of a threat than an enticement, as far as I'm concerned, given the cloying Cotswoldian world of that series of paintings.

OK, all you Kinkade fans who didn't heed my warning can now start complaining about how much of an elitist I am.  This column will be posted on the Arts Forum of the Trib Board, come and have your say.

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