Originally published January 16, 2014 at The Los Angeles Beat
A new temple of eccentric offbeat worship landed in L.A.’s Chinatown last month with the opening of Velveteria, a museum dedicated to the deliciously eclectic art of Black Velvet Painting. Originally established in Portland, Oregon in 2005, where it stayed until 2010, the museum garnered national attention and appearances on TV shows such as Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and The Tonight Show. Its founders, Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson are Southern California natives who grew up together and attended high school just outside of Pasadena in San Marino, the location of Huntington Gardens. Their unique love story found them reconnecting 27 years after they had left high school and embarking on what they now call The Velvet Trail, a trajectory that led them to beginning their incredible black velvet painting collection. This path is where the “unexpected always happens” and where they continuously “meet the nicest people with the craziest stories.”
“It’s accessible art. There’s something that makes you feel you can talk in front of it. I just want to show the world how fun this is. You don’t have to be a snob about art. Share the joy of it. Hear the laughter.” – owner Carl Baldwin
Caren and Carl purchased their first velvet painting, a depiction of a woman with a large purple afro, in 1998 while on a road trip through Brisbee, Arizona. “After that,” says Caren, “We started looking for more velvet paintings. At that point we’d collect anything that was velvet, even if it was terrible.” During a dinner party at their house a few years later, some friends got to view about 50 of the couple’s acquisitions and the idea for the museum was formed.
“I still think they’re laughing at us, but I really don’t care, because people love it. They can’t help it.” – owner Caren Anderson
Gathered from thrift stores, flea markets, garage sales, estate sales and other private collectors, it did not take long before a mighty stockpile was compiled. Although Velveteria holds about 400 rotating items, the entire glorious kitschy collection amassed by Carl and Caren is somewhere between 2,000-3,000 pieces. In fact it took 5 moving trucks to bring it all down from Oregon. From Japanese silk velvet art created in the early 1900s to velvet religious scenes popular in the 1920s-’30s, from respected mid-century Polynesian artists to pop art weirdness of the 1960s-’70s this collection is cohesive and touches on every genre.
The museum itself is divided into themes, some of which are iconic in the classic black velvet narrative- Rock Stars (preferably those who died tragically young), Black Power (big afros and nudity a plus), the almighty savior Jesus (here a black power “Last Supper” scores points in two categories) and the Hall of Elvis, dedicated to the King himself. A Black Light Room features glow-in-the-dark trip-inducing sad clowns, devils and the omni present Alfred E. Neuman, while the Unicorn Garden of Good and Evil pays tribute to the favorite mythical flying horse of the 1970s. There is a back room dedicated to the lost Vietnamese art of black velvet Playboy centerfold painting. Each painting here has a matching nude photograph ripped straight from its pages. These were a favorite of late ’60s American troops on tour of Vietnam and the outdated hairstyles immortalized on these nude women give the paintings even more of a punch. Also, make a point to use the rest room here. The black velvet big-headed children on toilets make the visit a necessity.
“We’ve had people come in here and start weeping. That’s the thing about these paintings- they’re so accessible to people. They just start telling us stories.” – Carl Baldwin
Los Angeles is extremely fortunate that Carl and Caren decided to make our lovely city the new home of their strange and surreal bit of specialness. Check out the new Velveteria digs in Chinatown, a few blocks away from Olvera Street and Union Station. Make an afternoon exploring some of the our city’s historical treasures and get your black velvet fix in the same trip.
Velveteria: 711 New High Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012; (503) 309-9299. Thursday-Sunday 11am-6pm.