One of the best articles on Velveteria
Sunday, May 14, 2006 – Inara Verzemnieks from the The Oregonian wrote one of our favorite articles.
Above all else, this is a love story, born of a phone call made in the dark, a hint of whiskey and not a little loneliness.
He’ll tell you he’s not really sure why he called, but she’ll tell you she’s pretty sure it was the picture: honey skin and a snug little bathing suit, the only person in their high school class directory who looked like she was still having fun after 25 years.
The truth was, he’d been having a hard time of it, lost more people in his life than he cared to think about, his brother, his father, and it left a big aching hole inside of him. She hadn’t had too good a time of it either, two marriages she’d rather forget. Born Again and again, until all that spiritual rebirthing wore her out. “I was doing a pretty good job of ruining my life,” she said.
So he dialed out into the dark, and she answered.
They hadn’t hung out together in high school, but she thought she remembered him: brown hair, brown eyes, real quiet.
Do you still have your hair, she asked.
Yeah, and my teeth, too, he said.
God, he’s funny, she remembers thinking.
Things went from there: five-hour talks and sunset walks and nights watching “Blind Date” from his old, broken waterbed.
But all that was just the preamble, everything leading up to the day when, rattling around a thrift store in Arizona, they spotted a velvet painting.
What is love, after all, but the ability to see beyond the surface of something?
Where other people might have looked at that painting of a naked goddess emerging from a flower and seen only kitsch, Caren and Carl saw something far more intriguing.
Maybe it was the idea of loving something so overlooked, something so unappreciated, that resonated with them, but they walked out of there with that painting. And a palpable hunger for more.
They were insatiable, intense, the way the love-struck often are. Truth be told, they went on a bit of a binge: Six years of estate sales and road trips, tracing what Carl liked to call the Velvet Trail, hitting out-of-the-way thrift stores from Sacramento to Tacoma to Union Gap to Juarez, Mexico, snatching up every velvet painting they could find. Big Bird. Tahitian maidens. Crying children. Devils. Elvis. Jesus. Martin Luther King. Abraham Lincoln.
“Scratch it till it bleeds!” Carl would shout, as they barreled toward the next thrift store, scarfing cookies and diet soda, trying to make it before closing time.
They had no idea what they were doing. “We’re in a free fall every day of our lives,” Carl liked to say. All they knew was that it felt right, like they were building toward something mysterious that would reveal itself in time.
Soon, one painting became 50, became 100, became 500, became 1,000, until Caren couldn’t open drawers in the house anymore, and she was threatening to get rid of the lot.
Love. Hate. It often springs from the same place.
One day you’re sailing along with a portrait of a bandito in the back seat and everything’s golden, and the next day you’re yelling about where to put him up on the wall, saying things you wished you hadn’t, slamming doors and storming off.
Love is patient.
The velvet paintings waited for them.
They can’t really remember how the idea for a museum started, but it floated between them for a while.
“Which is really kind of kooky if you think about it,” said Caren, who worked for 30 years as a psychiatric nurse. “Who would come see a velvet painting museum? How could we do it?”
Love makes you do funny things, take risks you never would have imagined.
One day last year, driving back from a Brian Wilson concert, Carl spotted a space for rent along Northeast 28th Avenue. He and Caren went out to take a look at it, swore they wouldn’t be impulsive, told the landlord they’d think about it, then ended up pulling a U-turn in the middle of the street, after they’d driven only a few blocks.
On a practical level, they could use the extra space –especially after Carl discovered the all-powerful trifecta of eBay, high-speed DSL and PayPal. They were losing track of what they had. Carl had spent weeks trying to remember where they’d put their portrait of Michael Jackson, pre-surgery.
But Caren also kept thinking back to a trip she’d made a few years earlier to New Orleans, where a psychic named Madame Coco told her that in the year 2005 Caren would do something amazing, something inconceivable, something beyond her wildest dreams.
To her it felt like their crazy idea had the blessing of the cosmos, or at least Madame Coco.
She’d been waiting a long time to do something so free, so unrestrained. That was another thing Madame Coco told her, and Caren had written it down on a piece of stationery from the hotel so she wouldn’t forget: “You will not let your passions be bridled anymore.”
When she was younger, Caren had wanted to go to art school, but her parents were always saying, “Don’t be a damned fool,” and so she chose nursing instead. More practical. In no way foolish. Not that she hadn’t pursued art in her spare time, even took some classes, but it was hard to fit in with her work, and there were some dry years.
She could look back now and see that she had always been searching for something. She’d tried everything from est to sitting zazen, to being Born Again (twice). Once, a guru tapped her with a peacock feather. “You were supposed to get instant enlightenment. All I could think was, ‘This isn’t working.’ ”
And then she met Carl. Carl, who was beholden to no one, who had worked, variously, as a front man for a dunk tank, a coin diver and a beer vendor at Mariner baseball games, NASCAR races, Wrestlemania and the Disney extravaganza “Mice on Ice” (a far stranger cultural phenomenon than velvet paintings, he insisted). His references consisted of men named Scooter and Flash and Chewy. (“This museum is my last hope, my last chance at legitimacy,” he liked to joke.) Carl wore whatever he liked –snakeskin boots and polyester jumpsuits and gold lame coats.
With Carl it was always, Why not? Why not open a velvet painting museum? Who cares how it all ends up?
So, they did it. Just like that. Signed the lease, palmed the key and stepped off the cliff, quick as the strike of a peacock feather. But this time, Caren actually felt something.
After she and Carl lugged about 200 of their paintings to the space and hung them on the walls in a dense, riotous retina-searing jumble of images and colors that Carl liked to call The Visual Onslaught, Caren had stood in the middle of it all (jesuselvisliztaylorhorsesclownscatsbreastsspanthersblacklightalicecooperunicornsjimihendrix), and realized that it felt a bit like she was looking at the inside of herself, all the crazy ideas, hopes, visions that had always been running around in her head. She loved the idea of being able to make that visible to people, to share that part of herself.
There were friends who thought they were crazy. But in Caren’s mind, opening a museum wasn’t just about creating a space for their collection. It was also about creating a space where you could be yourself. Without apology.
Just like the paintings.
If velvet paintings were people, they would probably squeak when they laughed. They would wear peach lipstick that sometimes smudged off on their teeth, and they would always keep candy around for the grandkids. They would be wild and prone to drinking a little too much, but they would always get up for work in the morning. They wouldn’t be ashamed to dance along to “YMCA,” and they would know the Electric Slide. They would subscribe to Playboy, and not for the interviews. They would cry at weddings and buy their children cars on their 16th birthdays, even when they couldn’t afford it.
The thing about love is that at some point, where other people see only imperfection, you catch a glimpse of something deeper, more complicated. Something endearing.
Maybe you’re the only one in the world who can see it. But you see. And something’s really powerful in that moment, when, however briefly, you move beyond judging to understanding.
So it was with the velvet paintings. Like the ballerina that Caren and Carl found in Tacoma. If you looked at it closely, it looked more like a ballerino; Carl thought maybe Gorgeous George. But also something was so refreshing about the earnestness of it, the utter lack of pretense. As Caren liked to say: “It is what it is.”
It wasn’t like she and Carl were naive or unsophisticated. They both grew up not far from the art treasures of the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif. Caren’s dad was a doctor, Carl’s was a lawyer. “We grew up around fine art and antiques,” Caren said. “We know exactly what we’ve got here.”
By here, she meant the Velveteria. That was the name they came up with for the museum in the end, if mostly because Carl loved the idea of making people say a made-up word. In fact, they were making lots of things up. Why not be perhaps the first museum in the world to sell thongs? What’s wrong with painting the walls chartreuse and yellow and laying down a purple carpet? Why not let the patrons caress the artwork?
The whole scene freaked out some people. They couldn’t figure out how to take it: Was this a joke, was this serious, was this postmodern irony? Carl suggested they keep a box of Mexican wrestling masks by the front door, so people could look around incognito.
It fascinated Caren and Carl that these simple, silly paintings, the subject of so much ridicule, had so much power over people. It was like when someone laughed at one, Caren would say, “I know. Isn’t it great?” When she said that, she wasn’t remarking on the quality of the art so much as her admiration for its ability to provoke a reaction. And wasn’t that what art was supposed to do?, Carl said. Provoke a reaction?
Crazy little things started to happen.
One day a woman came in and asked if they had a docent program. Another woman called after her husband died to ask if she could donate a painting he brought back from the Philippines; she couldn’t bear the thought of putting it in the trash. Three or four times a week Caren would field questions from people who wanted to know how to paint on velvet themselves.
“I’m sorry, but I love this!” one man blurted out, on entering. “You certainly don’t have to apologize to us,” Caren said.
The paintings seemed to trigger memories: the neighbors with the matador, the local stoner who owned a purple panther, the Midwest bowling alley where a buxom nude presided over the lounge, the ex-boyfriend who drove a van outfitted with shag rug, fake fireplace and, yes, naked lady.
One man reminisced about a velvet painting his father had done of a boat. “I wish I still had it now . . .,” he said, as he stood next to the wall of Jesus and Mary paintings that Caren and Carl had hung especially for Easter.
“I found an Elvis in a Dumpster last year,” his friend offered. “It didn’t really look like him.
“Sometimes it’s cooler when they don’t look like what it’s supposed to,” Caren said.
Carl shook his head at the thought of the abandoned Elvis. “They need to establish a hospital or something, where people can take them and drop them off. That’s like putting a baby in a Dumpster.”
Caren had this theory that the museum made people feel safe, that it put them at ease. You didn’t have to worry about “getting” a velvet painting. You didn’t have to worry that it was communicating some secret message you’d never understand. Velvet paintings had been about as humble as you could get, laughed at, ridiculed, panned for years. They weren’t going to put on airs. No matter how you felt about them, they were going to accept you unconditionally.
One day, Caren made up a sign for the museum: “$3 admission for a life-changing experience! Without crawling over broken glass or walking on hot coals.”
She and Carl were barely making any money, but they didn’t care. Caren had been fortunate enough to inherit some money when her mom died, and she figured as long as she and Carl could make the rent on the museum, that was fine with her.
This was the happiest Caren could remember being in a long time, hanging out with Carl and the paintings and watching all those fascinating reactions. She’d even started doing her own artwork again. Carl was happy, too. When the clerk at Trader Joe’s asked how he was doing, he practically shouted, “I’m livin’ the dream!”
Still, living the dream could be exhausting –“there’s only so much stimulation I can take,” Caren said –and she spent a lot of nights after museum closed, collapsed on the couch watching the Home & Garden channel on cable.
Hang out at the Velveteria long enough, and you quickly learn that anything’s possible. A child with blue hair? Sure. A horse that looks like it’s wearing a tuxedo? Why, of course. Dogs that look like children? Absolutely. A producer from Home & Garden Television ringing to see if they could shoot a segment on the Velveteria for their “Offbeat America” show? Why not?
“I told my family, for Caren it was like if Lawrence Welk called grandma and asked if she would be on his show,” Carl said.
Needless to say, for the weeks leading up to the crew’s arrival, Caren was a bit of a wreck.
” I tried to put on some concealer this morning, and got some in my eye,” she said the day of the taping, as she stood in the museum waiting for the heat to kick on and for the producer to arrive. Carl came a few minutes later, wearing striped velvet pants, a black velvet tuxedo jacket and snakeskin cowboy boots. His zipper was down.
What happened during the next eight hours returns to them sometimes in flashbacks, a strange swirl of colors and sounds:
Carl and Caren debating whether they should share the velvet paintings they found in Mexico of Jack Kevorkian, better known as “Dr. Death,” and Marshall Applewhite, the leader of a cult that timed a mass suicide to the arrival of the Hale-Bopp comet.
“Which do you like better?” he asked Caren, as the producer and cameraman looked on.
“Neither. They’re too disturbing, Carl.”
“Come on, Caren.”
“I won’t allow it, Carl. They’re too political.”
“Fine. How about this dog with a bird in its mouth?”
Caren, trying to explain the difference in their tastes: “Well, Carl likes clowns a little more than I do. Carl will go for a bad landscape before I will . . .” Carl, working himself into a rant in front of a wall of black-light paintings: “I love this. It’s not rich, antisocial, gouty, porcine European art. This is so dynamic, so compelling, so . . . so . . . Words fail me now.”
“Thank God,” Caren said.
The cameraman, informing them that he is filming in high definition. “Will that show all the cat hair?” Caren wondered aloud.
Carl, demonstrating how he cleans the paintings with lint rollers: “When you have 1,000 velvet paintings you do this a lot. This is why I have rotator-cuff problems now. I’ve lost a little off my curve ball.”
Finally, the cameraman just had to put his camera down. “That’s enough,” he said. There’s only so much stimulation anyone can take.
When it was all over, Caren and Carl collapsed in their living room with a bottle of champagne. Carl leaned over and kissed the top of Caren’s head. Caren asked Carl if he remembered when they just started dating, all the nights they spent watching the sun set, all those amazing colors.
Soon they were all alone, save for their paintings, which winked and cried and sang from every wall, while everyone else stepped out into a world that now looked a little washed-out, a little dull by comparison.