The only artist listed on the stock exchange, California native Thomas Kinkade has created a multimillion dollar media empire based on his nostalgic paintings of village cottages, gardens, and nature scenes. With a new book of fiction out, the born-again Christian talks about how God can anoint artists' creative expression.

You've described your work as a ministry. Could you expand on that?

I do a lot of work with charities. A work of art is something that can embody the message of a ministry, of a non-profit.

I did a painting called Bridge of Faith that a lot of people have been inspired by, and it was used as a fundraiser for World Vision. We set up a program where people could sponsor a child for a year and receive a copy of this print for free. So far over 62,000 kids have been sponsored. It's very exciting.

Recently we linked with the Salvation Army and raised a little over two million dollars for the relief effort after 9/11. It was through a print I did of the American flag at sunset, a very dramatic painting called The Light of Freedom.

I really think God gives us our creative talents as a tool to bring his light to the world. The darkness of the world is so evident--you can see that in the headlines every day. The only light that shines is God's love, his love for people all over, and it can be embodied in painting.

The painting goes in the home and it's in the home forever. It becomes a permanent part part of that home, of that family. It's an inspiration to people--it reminds them that the world is not all ugliness and darkness, that there's God's light.

Did you paint the flag directly in response to 9/11?

Yes. I remember on the 12th I went into the studio and became almost like a recluse. I locked the door and didn't come out for several days. I was so horrified and astounded by the event, like most people were. I wanted to make a difference. I remember thinking "I'm not a firefighter, I'm not in the military, I'm not a relief worker--but I can come to the studio and make a difference through my art." I could only contribute what I had to give.

The night before I'd had a vision of this flag flying over the New York City skyline. The painting was anointed by God from the very first brushstroke. I began work and couldn't stop, and it just came together so beautifully at the end. And I was not sure how God would use this painting but I created prints from it. We'd been in discussion with the Salvation Army over other projects, and suggested that we use this as a fundraiser. Thousands of people wrote in from all over the country offering donations to the Salvation Army, and in return they got the print.

In the past you've said you paint for battle-weary people.

This makes it literally true. In the case of the battles we most often fight, it's the battle for sanity, family, for our value system, for our faith. There are forces throughout our world that would rob us of the joy of life.

What are some of those forces?

In the 21st century, we've been sold a bill of goods, which is that all our electronic media and all our technology will somehow enhance our life, when in fact the foundational joy in life still comes from simple things, like spending time with children, slowing down to enjoy a relationship with someone you love, giving selflessly of yourself, returning to nature.

I know you don't own a TV. Are there contemporary writers or musicians that you do feel embrace these values--whose work is meaningful to you?

Music can be a great inspiration to a culture. There are many meaningful artists who create music with the express goal of inspiring and touching the hearts of other people. The blind opera singer, Andrea Bocelli. He's someone we listen to a lot as an example of what an inspiration this man can be.

I was at a Paul McCartney concert the other day, and I was very touched by his sincerity and the love he had for his audience. He's making a difference. I think the different mindset is this: If your art is all about you, then chances are it will become self-absorbed and meaningless to others. But if you view your art as a tool wherein you might touch the lives of others, then likely you will make a difference in the world.

I had this same argument with my college professors at Berkeley. It's a staggering dilemma when we have an entire art community that views themselves as iconoclasts.

What might be in a painting from someone who embraces this idea of art being about the self? An example of what doesn't work for you?

There are so many examples. Any time the nihilistic spirit comes into the arts, it ultimately frays and wearies a society. The recent exhibit in London that made all the headlines, where a woman took a urine-stained mattress and coated it with used condoms and empty vodka bottles. And this became the national prizewinner, the greatest work of art of the year. This is an example of the chaos that enters society through the arts. If you take the premise that the arts are a signature of civilization, as Voltaire said, then our civilization is in chaos as judged by the official art of our day. By official I mean the art that the governmental agencies and museum organizations endorse. This art, we're being told, is meaningful, and yet it is often filled with chaos, hatred, anger, bitterness, and self-destruction.

But there are revered artists out there whose works are filled with that as well--Picasso, for example.

I don't comment on individual artists from a motivation- or from a long-range value perspective. I only comment from a perspective of relevance to a culture and the missed opportunity we as artists have had to really make a difference.

Self-absorption, self-hatred--the same spirit that causes individuals to tattoo their bodies and have spikes coming out of every joint in their flesh is the same spirit that's alive in many artists. There's a great deal of pain and anger in people. I think it's valid to create art from pain and from anger, but I think largely people aren't drawn to an art of anxiety and chaos. People are drawn to messages that are comforting.

It's not effective to work creatively in methods that are completely idiosyncratic. In other words, the argument is the art is all about you, it's self-expression, it really doesn't matter if anyone else likes it. That would be like writing a novel in your own private language. People have done experimental works of literature where they've sat at a typewriter and typed for three hours. It's an interesting cultural exercise, but I don't think the work would be a bestseller.

My attempt is to create a cultural message that transcends the medium of art and that brings spiritual hope to people. I don't even mind if critics want to say that's something different--that maybe what I create is not art. Maybe it's the illustration of people's dreams. Call me an illustrator if you want. Call me an icon-maker, a cultural visionary within the medium of painting. Maybe there's a different title, because the word 'art' has been engulfed by the culture of chaos. But whatever I'm referred to as, I think the mission is a just one and a high calling--the mission of touching people's hearts through imagery that affirms foundational values.

What art from the past would you ideally like your own children and other children to be exposed to?

My kids have been with me to some of the greatest museums of the world. I am not only drawn to the art of, shall we say, calmness and beauty. For example, Goya's "Disasters of War" collection (see an etching from the series) at the Prado Museum in Madrid is a fabulous experience. I wouldn't hang any of those paintings in my home to meditate on every day, but I think that the power of an art of rage is valid. But there's also room for peace and beauty.

If people have one of your paintings in their home and meditate on it, what do you want to be going through their minds?

God's love. First and foremost, painting can express God's love for humanity. As a Christian, I believe God's love so permeates the world that creative expression is a part of that.

Your new book quotes the Bible verse about the "peace that passes all understanding." Which Bible verses speak to you?

For my own life, the scripture that has great meaning is from the Sermon on Mount, Matthew 5:16, where Christ exhorts his children to be people of light and says "Let your light shine before men."

I enjoy reading the small epistles--I read the book of Jude yesterday, and for some reason I always enjoy the book of James. Other New Testament writers besides Paul really speak to me. For me, the entire Bible is a treat, but I have been camping out in the New Testament, especially in recent months.

Some religiously inclined artists have trouble with the fact that Jesus and the Bible don't address the artistic vocation that much. Would you say that's true?

There are references to poetry and other arts in the New Testament, but perhaps not so much.

But you have clearly a message that God embraces beauty and that he embraces excellence in craftsmanship. The story of Bezaleel in the Old Testament--an anointing came upon this man who had been a slave in Egypt. Because of this anointing he was able to fashion works of great artistry for the temple. These articles became part of God's continuing heritage to his people as they carried the artifacts of the temple around the desert.

This is an example of the anointing that came upon me when I became a believer. I always say when I got saved, my art got saved. The light came on. Before, I was painting very self-absorbed work.

Such as?

I was doing a lot of figurative work. I was painting portraits of down-and-out street people. I was celebrating the most banal parts of my life as I lived in the ghettoes of L.A. going to art school.

You don't see value in a painting of a street person?

I do, but again, my mission or my role changed. If my goal as an artist was to celebrate only my own life in all its drudgery, then painting a paper clip or any other minutiae from my life would probably be valid. My goal just shifted. That's not to say highly personalized art is invalid. It's just that my goal came to become a communicator within the arts. I desire to communicate very broadly. I have a high ideal about what I do.

It's so funny when critics attack me from the standpoint of being a commercial artist-that suggests I continue to paint when to make money. In fact, because of the successes I've had, it's freed me from the need to paint for money. My goal now is really that of a missionary who desires to use my talents to bring a message to the world that they so desperately need. This world is filled with great possibilities, if only we turn around and notice them. I hope my paintings will inspire people to make something beautiful out of their lives every day.

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