Artist Thomas Kinkade wanted to establish a museum of his artwork, girlfriend says

SAN JOSE, Calif. — In the months before his death, Thomas Kinkade was “extremely focused” on establishing a museum of his artwork at his Monte Sereno home, his beleaguered girlfriend said in court papers filed Thursday.

“Thomas appreciated that while his art never received critical acclaim, he had legions of fans who were moved and uplifted by his art,” Amy Pinto-Walsh wrote in a declaration filed in Santa Clara County probate court. “Thomas wanted to create this museum for his fans.”

Pinto-Walsh said Kinkade took her on several trips to art museums _ including the Getty in Los Angeles _ for inspiration.

The declaration leaves a vague sense of foreboding, as though Kinkade had a premonition of his early demise and was giving instructions to his girlfriend to create a memorial. It also presumes that the tiny, tony town of Monte Sereno would allow a public museum in a private home down a narrow driveway just off a winding mountain road.

The declaration was filed in part to lend credibility to a pair of handwritten wills she says Kinkade wrote to her several months before he died at his home April 6 of a lethal combination of alcohol and Valium. Lawyers for the Kinkade estate have challenged the authenticity of the wills, claiming the handwriting is so shaky and illegible that they speak for themselves.

One of the wills, dated Dec. 11, gives Pinto-Walsh his Ridgecrest Avenue home in Monte Sereno and $10 million for the establishment of the Thomas Kinkade Museum.

The court filings came a day after lawyers for the estate and Kinkade’s estranged wife, Nanette, filed their own motions, asking a judge to move the dispute over the wills out of open probate court and into private arbitration. Pinto-Walsh signed a confidentiality agreement in February 2011 while she was dating Kinkade, and estate lawyers say that means all disputes must be settled by binding arbitration instead of public court.

Kinkade, 54, described himself as the “Painter of Light” for his dreamy landscapes that featured lamp posts, candlelight and cottages. Although his work was widely panned by the fine art community, copies of his paintings are said to hang in one of every 20 American homes. One of Kinkade’s early business partners said that people who bought Kinkade’s paintings felt like they were getting a 20-second vacation every time they looked at one.

Kinkade created an art empire by selling copies of his paintings that had been touched up by the brush strokes of his factory craftsmen in Morgan Hill. His images also appeared on countless calendars, plates and mugs.

The legal claims are pitting Pinto-Walsh, 48, his girlfriend of 18 months, against Kinkade’s wife of 30 years, from whom he had separated two years earlier. Kinkade spiraled into alcoholism, and his brother said the artist was just pulling himself out when he relapsed and died.

Although Pinto-Walsh is still subject to a confidentiality agreement, she spoke out through her court declaration, providing another glimpse into Kinkade’s final months and his desire for a public monument to his work.

“Thomas picked me to establish this museum in his memory. It is my desire to carry this wish out and establish the museum that Thomas envisioned,” the declaration said. “This is what he wanted to express his gratitude to his many fans.”

He also “wanted his museum to include a drawing room, where inspiring artists could sit at an easel and create their own copies of his art, she wrote. “He told me ‘imitation is the best form of flattery.’ His vision was not simply about displaying his original art, but it was about art education. He discussed having established artists teach classes to underprivileged children and artists at the museum.”

She says Kinkade was most taken by the Norman Rockwell Museum in the artist’s studio in Stockbridge, Mass., where Rockwell created many of his Americana-themed paintings that have become classics. At least one original Rockwell hangs on the wall of Kinkade’s home, his friends have said.

On Feb. 22, Kinkade and Pinto-Walsh traveled to the Getty Villa in Malibu, where “Thomas pointed out the landscape and water features on the grounds and told me that he wanted to incorporate similar features on the grounds at his studio.”

On March 10 and 11, less than a month before his death, they traveled to the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

“Thomas liked this no-admission-fee concept and expressed that he hoped I could raise enough money at some point to operate the museum without charging admission,” the declaration said.

She and Kinkade also visited the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, Pinto-Walsh said.

“The establishment of the museum was very important to Thomas,” Pinto-Walsh wrote. “He went to great lengths to describe for me and to show me his vision for the museum. It is my every intention to see that his wishes are carried out.”