Art lovers who get a kick out of kitsch

Velvet poodle at Velveteria

Velvet poodle at Velveteria

Feb 28, 2006 – Eric Bartels, The Portland Tribune, wrote the article, “Portland’s Velvet Underground“, here are something he had to say:

“We have people outside snickering,” Anderson says, sitting among images of forlorn clowns and entertainment icons. “Most people, let’s face it, they make fun of it. If they’d come in here they’d realize there’s a lot more to it.”

“We like the velvet paintings,” Baldwin says. “We got hooked.”

A Portland sculptor and artist who goes by the name of Juanita has done more than 100 velvet paintings in the past five years.

“I get some of the craziest commissions: family portraits, pet portraits,” she says. “I think it reminds people of the Elvis they had in their basement.”

“Hokey stuff is cool,” says Baldwin, who has a mildly disheveled air. “America to me is the individual person pursuing his own dream. Everything’s so homogenized now. A lot of the old roadside attractions are gone because the land’s too expensive.”

The museum appears to represent the newest strain in a line of oddball Portland attractions that has included the 24-hour Church of Elvis and the Portland Alien Museum, both now defunct, Voodoo Doughnut and Stark’s Vacuum Museum.

“The weirder, the better,” says Deborah Wakefield of the Portland Oregon Visitors Association. “We have a reputation nationally for being offbeat. These are the sorts of stories that the national media hook onto. Visitors who come here kind of expect it.”
Devil’s in the detail

Make no mistake, much of the Velveteria collection is just plain strange. There are Walter Keane-style children with huge, sad eyes and noses like dogs. There are a number of images of devils, including one in which the Dark Lord is seated on the toilet.

Nearby is a pre-Columbian-looking chariot driver lashing a team of demonic draft horses to a gallop. The ride has either kicked up a cloud of green dust or is passing through a thicket of marijuana plants; it’s hard to tell.

“There’s something definitely psychoactive going on,”Baldwin says.

On another wall is a popular genre: Mexican bandito art. Any question about the status of these tough hombres as a cultural icon is answered here. Each bandolier-draped desperado bears deeper, angrier scars across a cheek or the bridge of the nose than the guy before.

The museum’s true iconic center is a grouping of island-themed pieces of the type that decorated the basement lairs of returning servicemen in midcentury America.

Baldwin has been scouring such places for years. “When I go into an estate sale, I can smell the velvet,” he says.

“That was in somebody’s living room in Eastmoreland for 40 years,” Baldwin says, pointing out a particularly eye-catching piece.

The painting is an atrocity, a tropical nightmare of inert sea and palm trees that don’t sway. It’s done on a bright orange backdrop that evokes a post-apocalypse of the South Seas.

Nearby is a portrait of a Pacific Islander holding a paddle. The artist’s use of light and color is remarkable, even if the subject bears a disquieting likeness to ’60s TV star Jack Webb.

“The Hawaiian stuff,” Baldwin says, “is really collectible.”

The popularity of the South Pacific tableau is no accident. Marco Polo brought velvet paintings to Europe from Kashmir in the 14th century, but the genre was reborn in the hands of a Sacramento, Calif., sign painter named Edgar Leeteg, who migrated to Tahiti in 1930.

A vacation led to Leeteg’s reinvention as “the American Gaugin.” For two decades, the talented but hedonistic artist churned out superb works on velvet, more than 1,700 verified originals in all. But alcohol and debilitating venereal disease drove him to a suicidal motorcycle crash in 1953.

Revenue comes from museum admissions and a small retail operation, which includes quirky jewelry, religious icons and trinkets featuring likenesses of naked women and Mexican wrestlers. Also for sale are Velveteria bumper stickers, T-shirts and thong underwear.

“I’d like to make the rent,” Anderson says candidly. “It’s a labor of love.”

“We’re staffing it ourselves because we want to see the reaction,” Baldwin adds. “With the way the world is, we wanted somewhere people can walk out of with a smile on their face. I haven’t had anybody ask for their three five bucks back.

Read the entire article, “Portland’s Velvet Underground” by Eric Bartels at The Portland Tribune website.


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