Sunday, July 30, 2017

Riding Freight Trains With Thomas Kinkade

Riding Freight Trains With Thomas Kinkade
// Gurney Journey

Before he was the Painter of Light™, Thomas Kinkade was a hobo. (Direct Link to YouTube).

So was I. In 1980, he and I decided to take a summer off from art school to ride the freight trains across America. Here's a vintage tape recording from that journey. The quality isn't great, but it's a memory rescued from oblivion.

Thomas Kinkade and James Gurney in Missouri
I first met Thomas Kinkade in 1976, when he was assigned as my freshman college roommate at UC Berkeley.

After Berkeley, we were both art students at Art Center in Pasadena. The train-riding idea began after we met a hobo named Bud at a freight yard in LA. He told us which cars to ride and where to catch them. We decided to give it a try. 

We got short haircuts and we packed our backpacks with sketchbooks, markers, corncob pipes, felt hats, uniform shirts, and a Tupperware full of a mixture of peanut butter and honey. We were inspired by the writers Charles Kuralt and John Steinbeck, and we wanted to do the same thing with art.

All that summer we slept in graveyards and on rooftops and sketched portraits of gravestone cutters and lumberjacks. To make money we drew two-dollar portraits in bars by the light of cigarette machines.

By the time we got to Manhattan, we had a crazy idea to write a how-to book on sketching. We hammered out the basic plan for the book on Burger King placemats.

By night we slept on abandoned piers and by day we made the rounds of the publishers. We eventually got a contract from Watson-Guptill, and The Artist's Guide to Sketching was published in 1982. It is as much about the adventure of sketching on the road as it is about technique.

One effect of that trip on both of us was that we got a healthy respect for how all kinds of different people look at artwork. We set up at the Missouri state raccoon-hunting championships with the goal of doing portraits of everybody's favorite dogs. The owners were very particular with the dogs' proportions and markings, and they weren't going to pay us two dollars unless we got the details right. It was a tougher critique than we ever got in art school.

We never returned to art school. My art-school friend Jeanette and I stayed in touch and we did some sketching trips together. She stayed through school to graduate from ArtCenter, and I learned what I could from her class notes.

But I got my art education from self-teaching and from working with Frank Frazetta and Tom Kinkade on the movie Fire and Ice in early '80s.

I was always friendly with Tom in later years, but we were both busy and didn't stay in very close touch. Our families went on a few painting excursions together during the subsequent decades, to Colorado, Ireland, and the Catskills of New York State. I was sad Tom died so young, because his fearlessness and exuberance were a big influence on me.

As a footnote, Thomas Kinkade's New York Times obituary in 2012 said that "Mr. Kinkade traversed the country by boxcar with another artist, James Gurney, to sketch the American landscapes that they encountered."

One of the commentators after the obit doubted the veracity of the claim: "Really? Do you believe that a man born in 1958 traveled around the US in a boxcar like some Depression-Era hobo? He must be laughing wherever he is, that someone was gullible to believe that myth-making."


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