“…The Costs of Turning Yourself from a Three-Dimensional Person into a Two-Dimensional Brand”: Miranda Yousef on Her SXSW-Premiering doc Art for Everybody
One of the most surprising revelations about the painter (and multimillion-dollar mass marketer) Thomas Kinkade, “the most successful artist of his time” according to the synopsis for Miranda Yousef’s SXSW-premiering doc Art for Everybody, is not that he was, well, “the most successful artist of his time.” Nor that after his death a decade ago from a drug and alcohol overdose his family discovered a secret trove of rather dark and sometimes disturbing work, images at complete odds with the sugary sweet depictions of small-town life that once graced the walls of the Thomas Kinkade Signature Gallery franchises, a ubiquitous presence at US malls throughout the ’90s.
No, it’s that Kinkade was much more than some Trump-style showman, hawking branded kitsch on QVC. Ignored by the (white) art world cognoscenti and beloved by the (white) working class masses, Kinkade was likewise a dedicated family man and a practicing evangelical since college. Painfully earnest to his core, he was a man bent on fulfilling a populist mission to create “art for everybody” (originally the title of Susan Orlean’s 2001 New Yorker profile), one which, unfortunately, would lead to the “Painter of Light” (a lofty moniker originally given to J.M.W. Turner that Kinkade coopted and trademarked for himself) irrevocably flaming out.
Just prior to Art for Everybody’s (March 13) SXSW launch, Filmmaker caught up with the first-time director (and veteran editor) to learn all about her impressively enlightening debut.
Filmmaker: So when did you first encounter the paintings of Thomas Kinkade, and why did you decide to make a film about him?
Yousef: Like many people who were walking around shopping malls or watching TV in the 1990s to early 2000s, I encountered Thomas Kinkade everywhere. He was almost part of the air we breathed! So I certainly recognized his Painter of Light works from that time; but I didn’t realize just what a complex artist (and person) he was until I started researching Art for Everybody.
As a filmmaker I’m always looking for stories that can talk about big cultural and human ideas through compelling characters, and Thomas Kinkade had it all. He was a larger-than-life figure who led a Greek tragedy of a life, and the ways he engaged with various moments in American cultural history call up bigger themes: what “art” is and who gets to decide, the politicization of taste, and the costs of turning yourself from a three-dimensional person into a two-dimensional brand. Given our current political polarization and the brand-driven social media world we are living in today, it seemed remarkably timely. And then once I connected with the family and learned about the vault and all the dark works, it broke open the whole thing into an incredible story about a person trying to grapple with both his demons and his choices.
Filmmaker: You seem to have gotten great access to Kinkade’s ex-wife and daughters—the keepers of his legacy—which made me wonder how you first met the family and ultimately were able to gain their trust. Considering how badly Kinkade was treated in the mainstream media, were they initially wary of collaborating?
Yousef: The Kinkade family has been incredibly brave, and I am really honored by their vulnerability and trust. I can’t speak directly to their potential fears about doing this film, but they definitely wanted to tell the whole story of their dad/husband, and 10 years after his death they seemed ready.
When we were in initial discussions about the project I was honest about what I wanted to do — it wasn’t going to be a puff piece, but it wouldn’t be a hatchet job either. To me, this was an opportunity to paint a full portrait of the real man behind the brand, as opposed to the oversimplified images of him both his detractors and his fans have had as a result of his careful brand management. While my forthrightness may have helped, I think ultimately the family’s own courage and desire to do this were the deciding factors in moving forward.
Filmmaker: Why did you choose to transition from veteran editor to debut director, and how does your editing experience influence your overall approach to filmmaking?
Yousef: Throughout my life I have always been looking for opportunities to grow and learn. I’ve been editing for some time now, and while I do love editing I came to a point where I felt I wasn’t growing anymore. Transitioning into directing was the logical next step.
My editing career has turned out to be an invaluable training ground for filmmaking. I approached directing the film much in the same way I approach editing: as a writing process. After some initial research and preliminary conversations with the Kinkade family, I began to develop my conception of both the story and the deeper underlying thesis for the film. Knowing that each interview would guide and complicate the journey of discovery, I listened as much to what the interviewees were not saying as to what they were; and as a result came out with a really wonderful crop of interviews. It was an incredibly intense and fast edit considering how much footage and archival material we had, but having done plenty of preparation and thinking beforehand stood us in good stead. I think the movie closely reflects what I originally set out to make, which is not often the case.
Filmmaker: How did you decide which voices to include in the doc? Who did you reach out to that declined to participate?
Yousef: I am very proud of the fact that every one of the people featured in our film has a direct connection to Thomas Kinkade. The family and friends have obvious connections to Thom, but each of our fine art world figures has also either written directly about Kinkade or even (in the case of curator Aaron Moulton) hung a Kinkade work in an exhibition. It was important to me that every voice heard in the film has credibility — a reason to be there. There were a few art critics, college friends, and business associates who declined to participate, but ultimately I don’t think their absence hurts the film at all; we got everything we needed and much more.
Filmmaker: The film briefly addresses the lack of diversity in Kinkade’s tableaus, which likewise seems to extend to his fanbase. That made me curious as to how you as a filmmaker of color dealt with this aspect, both personally and with the Kinkade family.
Yousef: Certainly I felt the lack of ethnic diversity in Kinkade’s work was worth talking about. I actually personally looked at something around 450 of his published works to make sure that this was truly the case (it was). My feeling is that Kinkade was a man of a particular time and marketplace, and he was painting what he knew (having grown up in a not particularly diverse place in the late 1950s through the mid-1970s). A lot of cultural representation during Kinkade’s peak years was that way – I remember it very well. I did make an effort to locate critics of color, but those I contacted all told me they had nothing to say about Kinkade, and I think this reflects the fact that, during Kinkade’s peak, the art critical world was overwhelmingly white and male.
That said, the Kinkade family, through their work with their foundation, have been extremely supportive of curators and artists of color. I don’t think it was an accident that they chose to go with a female director of color for this film.