The World's Most Obsessed Velvet Art Collectors Want You to See the Light at Velveteria in Chinatown

Velveteria founders Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson: “Things pop out at you.”
Velveteria founders Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson: “Things pop out at you.”
Photo by Ellen Berman

Kooky, kitschy, tacky — Velveteria is all of these, and none of them. In a gradually gentrifying corner of Chinatown, Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin run their velvet painting museum with a non-ironic earnestness you would expect from aficionados who have traveled the globe to collect an art form that the world mocks.

“To most people who collect these, it’s a dirty little secret,” says Baldwin, a self-described bon vivant with a Gram Parsons–like sartorial vibe, whose history seems to fit the art itself: He’s worked ice shows, NASCAR, monster truck events — and as a carny on midways beginning decades ago with the now-shuttered Pike in Long Beach.

To Anderson, a retired psychiatric nurse who also grew up here, an encounter with a velvet painting is like “coming out of the womb … or like someone is walking toward you from a dark corridor. Essentially, you’re in this dark place and these things pop out at you.”

The duo has amassed a staggering 3,000-piece velvet painting collection that may well represent the world’s largest concentration of these objects under one roof: tikis, nudes, unicorns, clowns, religious figures, Black Power, JFK, rock & roll, Jack Webb and Elvis.

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Many Elvises. A whole Hall of Elvises.

Anderson and Baldwin collected over a period of several years in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Northern California, Mexico and points between — “the Velvet Trail,” as Baldwin describes it — doggedly hitting every thrift store and estate sale they saw. From 2005 to 2010, they ran their creative enterprise from Portland, Oregon, an apt city in which to embrace such a pursuit. In 2013 they moved back to Los Angeles, citing Portland’s sluggish economy and L.A.’s warm weather and cultural diversity. Once here, they had no choice but to distill their 3,000-piece collection down to a mere 400 to display; the rest are in storage.

Velveteria sounds like the name of a food truck specializing in processed cheese dishes. It is an actual museum — if a museum can have hand-lettered notes in ballpoint pen dotting the walls, scribbled with random surreal commentary or contextual information. Down the hall and behind a secret door is a black-light room, where you can lounge on beanbag chairs and admire the glowing colors of your own clothes while checking out fluorescent versions of velvet art zombie soldiers, panthers and Alfred E. Neuman.

As an art experience, Velveteria’s pleasures cannot be denied. The museum takes up a storefront space on New High Street, sharing the Chinatown neighborhood with a fish market and seafood distributor, a Chinese herbalist and a beauty products shop.

Once inside, visitors walk from one themed alcove to the next, from the tropics to Las Vegas to Vietnam to outer space. They travel through one era of popular subject matter to another; the collection roves across a broad landscape of pop culture and cultural consciousness.

“Velvet painting is the Rodney Dangerfield of art. It’s the stuff nobody wanted,” Baldwin says, “but that’s wrong. Velvet painting is technically difficult and requires different skills than ordinary painting.”

Velvet paintings can be flashy and masterful, and the technique requires a surprisingly skilled hand. The pile, or nap, of the fabric acts as a sponge; as in the unforgiving art of watercolor, one careless stroke of the brush can ruin a piece. Once a painting is finished, too much exposure to sunlight can quickly fade the work.

But the results can be joyous, and the texture of a velvet canvas practically begs you to reach out and touch it.

On one rare occasion, the museum encouraged that normally prohibited behavior. Anderson recalls, “A blind woman came in and we let her feel the paintings. We regaled her and her friends with amazing stories behind the art.”

There’s technique, and then there’s technique. “Our pieces,” Baldwin says, “range from fine art to ‘Oh my God, what were they thinking?’?”

As charming and funky as the 400-piece exhibit is, you get the feeling there is more going on here than fuzzy fun and games featuring candy colors on a black background.

A whiff of 1960s counterculture clings to Velveteria — the era when SoCal kids Anderson and Baldwin were drawn to the velvet siren in the first place. “We both grew up in Los Angeles,” Baldwin says. “In the ’60s and ’70s, people sold velvet paintings on street corners, gas stations or swap meets, just about anywhere.”

The couple, who were high school contemporaries but didn’t start dating until 30 years later, began their actual collecting in 1999 when, during a trip to Arizona, they stumbled upon a velvet painting of an African-American woman with a blue Afro. This was the spark for their shared obsession.

They eventually became so widely known within the hot Portland creative scene that they were invited to appear on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, along with appearances on CBS News Sunday Morning and MSN’s Appetite for Life with Andrew Zimmern.

Anderson and Baldwin are perhaps the world’s leading experts on the history and meaning of velvet painting. They co-authored a lavish book in 2007, “Black Velvet Masterpieces,” and pieces from their collection are shown around the world.

A painting they own by Edgar Leeteg recently was exhibited at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris in its “Tiki Pop” exhibition. Leeteg, an American billboard painter who settled in French Polynesia and went on to global success as a velvet painter, once said, “My paintings belong in a gin mill, not a museum.” Fittingly, in Los Angeles, for half a century his works adorned the walls of the now-defunct Seven Seas nightclub across from the Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard.

Baldwin and Anderson have themselves wandered the earth for years in search of more art — they traveled up the Amazon River to track down some of their finds. No mere hoarders of consumer detritus, they are velvet art’s true believers, and can expound on the topic with an air of impish authority. “The light coming out of the darkness is really what it boils down to,” Baldwin says.

Velvet painting has occasionally crossed over to the world of “high” art. Julian Schnabel has worked in the medium, painting portraits on black velvet of subjects including Andy Warhol and Francesco Clemente. Peter Alexander, a member of the Light and Space movement that originated in Southern California in the 1960s, worked on velvet for nearly a decade and recently had a retrospective of those paintings at Craig Krull Gallery at Bergamot Station in Santa Monica. San Francisco artist Eleanor Dickinson has received critical praise for her “Revival!” and “Crucifixions” series of paintings on velvet.

Most folks don’t consider velvet paintings to be art with a capital A. But one dedicated pair of admirers is trying to give the genre its due in Los Angeles, in hopes that velvet painting will have its moment when other curators or museum directors step over the velvet rope.

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