DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - On a quiet street in Chinatown lies the world’s only museum dedicated to velvet paintings. It's tucked behind a storefront that you’d never notice unless you were searching for it.
Step inside Velveteria, which opened Dec. 11 at 711 New High St., and paintings of everything from roaring panthers to rock stars to serene landscapes leap off that walls like Technicolor blasts of kitsch and fine art. Near them lie nonsensical figurines, toys and other oddities. There’s even a jackalope with wings, as if the mythical jackrabbit’s antlers weren’t enough.
Getting past the silky pink curtains, where the rest of the museum’s treasures await, costs $10. A small handwritten note declares that entering will be a “life changing experience! Without crawling over broken glass or hot coals!”
Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson insist that it’s not an overstatement.
“We tell people that we have 2,500 or 3,000 paintings,” Baldwin said during a recent morning visit. “But honestly, I have no clue.”
Velvet paintings have long had the reputation of being incredibly tacky, and the museum doesn’t shy from garish depictions of Elvis, clowns, Liberace and more. Yet the walls also hold reflective portraits of Martin Luther King, Jr., lushly detailed snapshots of South Pacific shores and dramatic anti-war pieces all done with incredible precision on a notoriously difficult fabric.
“I used to make fun of these, you know,” Anderson said.
“I never made fun of them. I loved them,” Baldwin protested.
The duo believes that the best velvet painters are as capable and skilled as their more respected peers. The work of pioneering artists like Edgar Leeteg, Ralph Burke Tyree, Earl Frysinger and Cecelia Rodriguez indeed make a compelling case that velvet art extends far beyond the horizon of kitsch. Anderson points to the artists’ expert use of rich colors and fastidious brush strokes, and how the images pop off the velvet to almost alarming effect thanks to the black-hole darkness of the fabric.
“The mainstream art world, it doesn’t want to recognize velvet painting as a valuable art form, and that’s their problem,” Anderson said with a shrug.
The couple picked up their first velvet painting in 2000 in Bisbee, Ariz., choosing a kneeling woman with a bright blue Afro over a portrait of President John F. Kennedy.
“The Afro woman was cheaper than JFK. That was like, $100,” Baldwin said. “So we went with the woman.”
Their winding up together in Bisbee is nearly as curious as their particular passion.
Baldwin and Anderson, both 60, attended the same high school in Southern California but only connected 27 years later, when Baldwin was flipping through a high-school reunion pamphlet.
There, he spotted a photo of a slender Anderson wearing a bathing suit (“I submitted an especially good photo for that,” she joked). Emboldened by a little Jack Daniel’s, he tracked down her phone number and decided to call. More chats over the phone followed, and they eventually decided to meet in Arizona, where Baldwin was living.
Though Anderson worked as a psychiatric nurse and Baldwin dabbled in a variety of video jobs and other media-related work, the Afro woman painting kick-started a different kind of love affair between them. Velvet paintings became an obsession, one that only picked up steam as Baldwin moved from Arizona to Oregon to be with Anderson.
Baldwin, struggling to find a steady career, resorted to working odd jobs, often selling beer at baseball, basketball and football games in Portland and Seattle. He spent nights in a shady Seattle motel — if he got enough tips — or at campsites, visiting Anderson in Portland whenever he could.
It was a blessing in disguise: The itinerant lifestyle allowed him to spend his days scouring local thrift shops and yard sales for velvet paintings.
He and Anderson eventually began traveling across the country in search of artwork, a journey Baldwin lovingly refers to as the Velvet Trail. It took them along the West Coast, into the Southwest and even to Mexico, which was a hotbed of velvet painting during the medium’s “golden age” in the 1960s and ’70s.
When the couple began living together, they filled the house with velvet paintings — about 50 of them. Naturally, guests took notice, and the paintings became a focal point of the home.
That’s about the time Anderson and Baldwin started to wonder: What if they just displayed their wares in a gallery instead of the house?
Writing out a business plan wasn’t easy.
“Go to Bank of America and try to get a loan for a velvet painting museum, with a business card that has a crying clown on it,” Baldwin deadpanned.
Still, people began discovering the little gallery in Southeast Portland shortly after it opened in December 2005, and patrons’ reactions were memorable. Some treated their enjoyment of velvet paintings as a dirty little secret. Others laughed in nostalgic pleasure or seemed transported to another time and place.
“It’s always been positive responses. People who come are the ones who want to come,” Anderson said. “Honestly, I’m still baffled why people love these things so much, but I’m happy it’s not just us.”
Wanting a change, Baldwin and Anderson decided to move back to California in 2010. There was never any doubt that Velveteria was coming with them, though the location was up for debate. They settled on Chinatown, inspired by its exciting Downtown surroundings (and, for Baldwin, fond memories of his very first date at Hop Louie.)
While Anderson and Baldwin don’t know how many people will walk through Velveteria’s doors on any given day, they have high hopes that the museum’s snark-free oddness will draw new fans.
“When you go to a city, you see the same malls, the same stores, the same stuff everywhere,” Anderson said. “But there’s nothing like Velveteria in the world. That’s something people love.”
But though the present and the new Downtown Los Angeles location are exciting, Baldwin and Anderson don’t give much thought to the future. They say they don’t have a clue as to whether someone could take over Velveteria and their massive collection one day. The couple has neither kids nor an obvious successor, but selling the pieces are out of the question. They’re not even sure when they might retire.
“This is the most foolish retirement plan in the world!” Baldwin said, laughing long and hard. “The only stupider thing would be to go out and burn money on the corner. But this is fun. The point of this is sharing this art with the world.”
They were brought together almost by chance and fell in love over paintings that few care about. No wonder Anderson and Baldwin are still pursuing a life as weird, spontaneous and lovely as the artwork that adorns Velveteria’s walls.
Velveteria is at 711 New High St., (503) 309-9299 or velveteria.com. It is open Thursday-Sunday, 11 a.m-6 p.m.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2014