One in every 20 homes in the U.S. contain a Thomas Kinkade painting, print or tchotchke stamped with his work. He is the most collected artist in America, but on Jan. 6, 1958, when he was born, he was just another small-town kid, living on an unpaved road in Placerville, California.

William Thomas Kinkade III preferred to go by a shortened version of his middle name, Thom. When he was only 5-years-old, his parents divorced.

“I was the only kid from a divorced home in that whole community I knew of,” he said. “It’s a very common thing now, but at that time it was a cause of embarrassment and shame.”

He, his siblings and mother lived in relative poverty. He longed for a home that had the lights on, the fireplace lit and possessed a “warm, homey feel.”

Thom always knew he wanted to be an artist.

“I was always the kid who could draw,” he said. “I had this talent, and it was the one thing that gave me some kind of dignity amidst my impoverished personal environment.”

When Glenn Wessels, an accomplished artist, moved in next store to the Kinkade family, Glenn took on Thom as an apprentice for the next six years.

When Thom graduated high school in 1976, he attended the University of California in Berkley on scholarship. He imagined himself becoming a sophisticated art scholar. The opposite happened. Thom rejected the “pseudo-sophistication” he learned at college that stated, “Your art is all about you.” and decided instead his art should appeal to everyone, not just art critics.

In 1982, Thom became a born-again Christian and married Nanette Wiley. As he began his painting career, he decided his painting should reflect his foundational values.

“I try to create images of inspiration, hope, a simpler way of life,” he said. “It’s not the world we live in; it’s the world we wished we live in. People wish they could find that stream, that cabin in the woods.”

Bridges, gates and grassy inclines leading upward were symbols of Thom’s religious faith and were his favorite subjects to paint. He also enjoyed incorporating other whimsical “extras” into each painting. Those who look closely may be able to find the letter N for Thom’s wife, Nannette, which he worked into all his paintings at the time.

Another whimsical interloper that made their way into Kinkade paintings was Thom’s idol and favorite illustrator, Norman Rockwell. He and Nanette pooled their money and began selling prints in front of a local grocery store for $55 each. From there, his success snowballed.

Americans were entranced and delighted by Thom’s work and purchased millions of paintings, prints, cards and other more expensive items such as lounge chairs, bath robes and countless other items imprinted with his now iconic images. Americans simply couldn’t get enough of Kinkade in the 1990s.

Art critics dismissed Kinkade’s art by describing it as “sacrid” and “irrelevant.”

Thom characterized these comments as elitist and defended his artistic relevancy by saying, “Here’s the point. ... My art is relevant because it’s relevant to 10 million people. That makes me the most relevant artist in this culture, not the least. I’m relevant to real people.”

Although the art critic culture had little to say when Kinkade died April 6, 2012, his passing was mourned by millions of everyday people, who deeply appreciated the warm, nostalgic and idyllic messages of hope his paintings provide in an otherwise stressful world.

To learn more about Kinkade and his work, check these resources:

• Young artists can receive a free art lesson from the Painter of Light himself, Thomas Kinkade. Learn how to draw fruit, a lighthouse and a sail boat at bit.ly/2TduGBk.

• Take a virtual tour of Thomas Kinkade’s art studio. Thom himself will guide you through the finishing process on one of his paintings and give lessons on light and shadow for your own art work. bit.ly/36Iwx4W

• The Hardin County Library has many books featuring Thomas Kinkade’s wondrous works and a semi-­biographical DVD of his life. Go to hcpl.info to take out a book, DVD or ebook.

Becky Chinnici Anderson is a children’s librarian with the Hardin County Public Library, which offers a bi-weekly Kids’ Art Camp. Her series of Art Smart articles provides bite-sized insight into art and artists. She can be reached at iloveteachingyourkids@gmail.com.