On a crystalline afternoon in April, the looping, unpaved road leading to Rebecca Kinkead's Ferrisburgh home and studio is slippery from the previous night's rain. Just inside the door of the airy, post-and-beam house built by her husband, Jamey Holstein, three dogs nearly fall over themselves to greet a visitor, bodies wiggling and tails thumping the floor.
Upstairs in the second-floor painting studio, examples of Kinkead's dreamlike, impressionistic paintings rest on easels or hang to dry: a snowy owl whose blurred wings appear to be beating; a family on a sailboat, their facial features indistinct; a Pollock-like spatter of paint suggesting waves on a rocking ocean.
Kinkead, 45, paints in oil and a wax medium of her own creation using a palette-knife technique to evoke flurries of movement in her figures. She uses simple, direct compositions that place her subject front and center on the canvas, and favors cool hues with the occasional shock of red or yellow. She says she's most attracted to capturing people and animals amid "small moments of joy and triumph."
"I remember feeling, as a kid, like everything felt intensified," Kinkead says. "You know, the first time you ride your bike without the training wheels, or going up too high on a swing just enough so it dips out underneath you, and little things that felt so dangerous. It's different when you're an adult."
The body of work Kinkead has developed since moving to Vermont five years ago has made her a top-selling artist at a dozen galleries throughout the state and across the country. She's even picked up celebrity fans: In 2011, Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King each purchased one of her paintings at a gallery in Park City, Utah. Next month, Kinkead and her husband will begin construction on a studio on their property that's "bigger than the house," she says, and will enable her to work on larger canvases. Demand for Kinkead's paintings — and prints of her images — has increased so much that Holstein has quit his management job at Drake Environmental Consultants to manage her sales.
Kinkead's work currently focuses on subjects that might have been lifted from the pages of a children's book, or inspired by a lullaby. She blends hazy color with depictions of spontaneous movement: a hare bounding across a snowy meadow; a dog shaking water from its coat; Holsteins flicking their tails while resting on a flowering field; and dozens of children riding bicycles or diving into the water.
Her paintings reflect her own inclinations in buying art. "There's something living in pretty much every single piece of art that I've purchased," Kinkead admits. "There's something thrilling about seeing a little red fox trot across the field, or the snowy owl fly through your yard. Just to be able to have that on your wall and look at it — it just brings back that moment of, you know, thrill."
It's a stark contrast to her previous artwork. Five years ago, Kinkead was living in Boston and painting almost exclusively monochromatic abstract pieces while working as a nanny to support herself. A native of Natick, Mass., she'd come to Burlington to attend the University of Vermont in 1986 and, after graduation in 1990, pursued a master's in education at Minnesota State University. There, she switched paths and enrolled in the university's art school, initially focusing on clay. Toward the end of her school years, Kinkead discovered painting — and says she never looked back.
She returned to the East Coast, settling in Boston in the late '90s, and painted almost every day while working a variety of jobs to support herself. As a largely untrained painter, Kinkead was constantly working to improve, she says. She had just one gallery and rarely made a sale. In one failed series, Kinkead painted large-scale abstract, monochromatic cells and chromosomes on big canvases. "Color just felt really daunting," she recalls. "I felt like the work I was making that was monochromatic was better."
During her decade in Boston, a series of events occurred that changed Kinkead. The first was Hurricane Katrina, which took place while she was tending the children of a wealthy family. "It was after Hurricane Katrina that I started painting figures," Kinkead says. "Seeing the pictures of those kids on the news was just so disturbing and troubling, and here I was in Boston taking the kids to the country club ... I almost think I wanted to recreate a reality for [the children in New Orleans] where it was normal and safe."
In 2007, personal life changes affected her work. Kinkead met Holstein, fell in love and moved to Vermont. At her new husband's suggestion, she took time to focus on painting without working a side job. She took classes in Middlebury with oil master Tad Spurgeon, whom Kinkead credits with helping her develop her customized wax medium and her dexterity with color. She began using the latter with abandon, drawing inspiration from Vermont's wildlife, natural scenes and her husband's dogs.
"It just totally shifted when I moved up here," Kinkead remembers. "All of a sudden, color came back in the work, and figures, and it became so much more playful. I think I was just so happy, and I just felt really free."
And the work began to sell. "The response was immediate, like night and day," Kinkead says. "So I must be doing something that's resonating. And that's what you hope for.
"I think, in some ways, you know, I'm painting the childhood I would wish for everybody," Kinkead adds, though she declines to speak specifically about her own. "I think everybody has stuff from their childhood — nobody's is perfect. I think we all have those similarities in childhood that link us, that are just part of being human."