Velveteria: Museum of Velvet Paintings
Los Angeles, California
This field report was written just before Velveteria closed in Portland. It reopened in Los Angeles in late 2013.
"Welcome to the visual onslaught," said Carl Baldwin, co-owner of Velveteria. He parted a fuchsia curtain as we entered the museum, and hundreds of black velvet paintings came into view: a jackalope riding a unicorn galloping atop a rainbow in outer space; a towering Jesus blessing an 18-wheeler; a pair of porpoises leaping from a moonlit sea, their spray forming two halves of a heart, titled "Dolphin Love."
"We want to show as much as we can; take it to the top and see what happens," said Caren Anderson, Carl's partner. "Just about anything goes with velvet."
Caren and Carl discovered velvet paintings when they discovered each other, a mutual mid-life crisis that blossomed into both a love story and possibly the world's finest collection of velvet art, with the Velveteria as its unmatched showplace.
Years of collecting have left Caren and Carl still awed by the skill of velvet painters, and as baffled as everyone else by the choice of subject matter. They said that Mexico is where much of it is made, sometimes on art assembly lines.
We stopped to admire portraits of Jack "Dr. Death" Kevorkian and Marshall "Heaven's Gate" Applewhite, and Carl fondly recalled the day that he and Caren found them on a velvet art purchasing trek to Tijuana.
"We had about ten on each arm," he said. "We had to walk back to the border and this fluke rainstorm hits. You can't roll up velvet art; the paint will crack. And a big wind turns them into a spinnaker and pulls you right down the street." Shielding their treasures with their bodies, Caren and Carl fought their way to the U.S. "The guard asks, 'Whaddya got?' And we said, 'Velvet paintings!' And he looks at us as if we're crazy and waves us through. 'Get out of here.'"
Voluptuous naked women are a favorite subject for velvet. The museum has a vintage collection, which Carl and Caren have playfully mislabeled to titillate younger visitors: "Pamela Anderson" is actually Bridget Bardot, "Britney Spears" is in fact Susan Bernard, the first Jewish Playboy playmate.
"We had all the nudes in a separate room, but then we wanted a black light room and so we gave up," Caren explained. Black light rooms are usually found in rock museums, but the one in Velveteria is a night radiation wonderland of painted unicorns, clowns, the devil, Alfred E. Newman, more naked women, and a large mushroom titled "Eat Me."
Caren and Carl make the rules in Velveteria. They have no interest in traditional art museum design, such as exhibiting their collection by artist. Paintings of Elvis, Bat Boy, African-Americans in love, Jesus, and a puppy with three eyes are displayed as equals. "We get asked all the time, 'Do you live here?" Caren said, reclining on a pink couch. "They wouldn't let us!" Carl cracks.
Imagine our surprise, then, when we learned that Velveteria would be closing! Not forever, Caren and Carl insisted, but only until they could move themselves and their 3,000+ paintings to southern California.
It's a terrible loss for Portland, but the museum will be much closer to the velvet art taproot of Tijuana -- which means that there'll be many more clowns, unicorns, and topless maidens to come.