Q&A: Talking Naked Ladies and Sweaty Elvises with Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin of Portland’s Velveteria and Black Velvet Masterpieces

It is the Rodney Dangerfield genre of the art world: demeaned, dismissed and definitely not getting any respect with subject matter like crying Elvises, fang-bearing jungle panthers, Jesus with various apostles, and full-frontal nekkid Hawaiian girls.

But for Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin, there is no greater art than that done on fine black velvet—and fuck the critics! The pair’s passion has led to their travels on the “Velvet Trail,” with a still-growing collection of more than 1,200 works mainly culled from garage sales, defunct shops and Mexican flea markets.

Hundreds are on display in their Portland museum, The Velveteria, and they’ve just co-authored Black Velvet Masterpieces. The book traces the history of velvet painting, highlights some of the genre’s key artists, and features photos and commentary on many of their collected. Houstoned spoke with the pair about fate and fuzzy canvases..

You both started on the "Velvet Trail" shortly after reconnecting after nearly 30 years since you’d last seen each other in high school. Was it destiny?

Baldwin: It was the misbegotten union of Jack Daniels and Ma Bell. Actually, an unseen hand from the other side has guided us since the beginning. I was trying to find out what happened to an ill-fated classmate when I called Caren. Once we stepped onto the Velvet Trail, our fate was sealed. There is no turning back.

What is it about velvet paintings that appeal to your senses or enjoyment over more traditional paintings?

Anderson: The light, the way it magically lifts the painting to an almost lifelike form. It’s like 3-D. Paintings on canvas look flat. These bad boys pop right out. Some of these ladies look ripe for a roll in the hay. Beckoning. Way too sexy for canvas. The sweat of Elvis’ brow and especially the tears. You can feel the wetness of a tear along with the sadness.

You're on a mission to take velvet painting out of the "kitsch" category into something more legit.

Baldwin: Our mission is to Fight Cultural Deprivation. I sometimes think of velvet painting as akin to jazz or the blues. It will be appreciated by Europe, then bounce back to the States and remind us of something important in its own way to our times and reflective of our culture.

But the real delight I get is that these art snobs are so afraid of it. Holding up a velvet in the face of an art critic is like holding a cross in front of Dracula. It’s fun to watch them recoil and melt! This may be the most powerful art in the world. Going legit could destroy its charm. We all want the forbidden dance in some tawdry back alley. This is art from the wrong side of the tracks, where all the fun is. We want to make it safe for folks to bring the velvet out of the closet, put it above the genuine naughyde sofa, uncork the jug, and have a party.

What are the five most often-painted subjects or themes?

Baldwin: Naked ladies, Jesus, clowns, Elvis, and matadors.

Some of the paintings are clearly the work of amateurs while others are done by the hand of truly talented renderers. Do you differentiate at all when collecting?

Baldwin: What the amateurs lack in skill sometimes has an abundance of charm. Take the Unicorn Combover [when a unicorn’s mane hair is also that of a woman’s in the painting], for instance. I’m untrained and probably ill-informed. I’m not shackled by formal art school training. So I’m free to look at this stuff and enjoy it and not pick it apart categorizing it good, bad, folk, high, low, whatever. As far as collecting, we go for the bizarre and the beautiful. We go for the bizarre first.

What kind of reactions do you get from people who come to the museum?

Baldwin: People have shown up just about ready to jump out of their skin in anticipation of what they are about to see. Once inside the oohs and ahhs never end. Wow and double wow is heard upon entering the blacklight room. Kids especially love it. We want these young up and comers to experience the blacklight. And have their soul become psychedelicized!

The book details some of the pioneers of velvet painting. What modern artists are carrying on the tradition?

Baldwin: Juanita, whose signature use of glitter is striking. Her Mr. T, Rat Fink , and Jackalopes are as fine as anything in the Louvre. Rick Bustamante just did the Three Stooges, including Shemp. His painting of Rudy Ray Moore as Dolemite is my favorite. Ryan Legler’s beatific Howard Stern, horrific Michael Jackson, and svelte Oprah get strong reactions. Laura Hazlett from San Francisco does pet portraits. She is amazing. More artists are popping up all over.

Was doing the book a double-edged sword - it brings notoriety to the art form and the museum, but now it will be harder and more expensive to find paintings since it's "out there”?

Baldwin: I think some of those Snoopys went from $3 to $5 dollars in Portland because of us, but there are so many of them, could we have any impact at all? Last month an eBay seller withdrew his painting from auction after seeing our book. He then relisted it for a couple thousand, which he didn’t get. He ended up selling it for 200 clams, which we would have done in the first place. But I hope we do drive up the prices. We need a vacation!

Finally, what is the strangest or most bizarre thing that's happened to you while collecting?

Anderson: We tell the story in the book about a big collection of velvets in the California desert. The old man who had collected the velvets since the ‘60s told me to come down with a pillowcase full of cash. They lived in an old eucalyptus grove full of lean-tos, shacks and trailers. The cops had just searched the groves for a missing person and found four bodies that had been there for who knows how long. Obviously I made other arrangements. And I’m still here!

-- Bob Ruggiero

Black Velvet Masterpieces, by Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin, 192 pp., Chronicle Books, $24.95

To learn more about The Velveteria, click here.