The Velveteria’s & Carl Baldwin

The Velveteria is a little gem in Chinatown that specializes in exclusively velvet paintings. Owner Carl Baldwin chats with us about his collection of 5,000 paintings and the journey in gathering the fame he's claimed since.
The neon room at Velveteria
The neon room at Velveteria

The history of velvet fabric dates back centuries. Developed in China in the 13th century, it didn’t later gather popularity until the 15th century of textiles produced by Mediterranean weavers. While its earlier origins indicated wealth and power, its later uses have translated into many formats, from clothing to blankets to, of course, velvet paintings. It started out as a canvas in the 14th century, later recycling out again in 16th century China and 19th century England. Unfortunately, its most recent resurge has a poor reputation for tackiness—most people nowadays may not think of velvet paintings right away when considering different art forms. Rather, it tends to be associated with musty old thrift stores and cheap tourist attractions, often found in cardboard boxes at garage sales and empty lots. The Velveteria Downtown LA

Featuring photobomb from large roll of paper towels.
Featuring photobomb from large roll of paper towels.

The Velveteria, however, seeks to place the velvet painting back on its proper 15th century throne of luxury and respect. Opened in 2005 in Southeast Portland, Oregon, owner Carl Baldwin and then partner Caren Anderson made a place for their rapidly growing collection of velvet paintings. The space has since moved to Chinatown, Los Angeles (in 2013) on a busy street of merchants, tucked in between dim sum and seafood restaurants rather than the mess of art galleries on the other side of town. Featured on major media outlets like Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown and The Travel Channel, the gallery hosts over 5,000 velvet paintings. Some have even been categorized into Baldwin’s themed rooms of glow-in-the-dark velvet and a room of naked ladies. We chatted with Baldwin about his wild journey with the museum, some shoulder-rubbing with Anthony Bourdain and Chuck Palahniuk, and his own thoughts on “modern art.”

The naked lady room at Velveteria
The naked lady room at Velveteria

How did you get your start in the art world?

Okay, here’s my story about art. My art careers. I grew up here, seven years old in La Mirada, California. Right down interstate 5. I was drawing clowns in the art part of this curriculum, or rather they called it that. So the teacher held up the clowns I was drawing and said, who’s wasting all this paper drawing these clowns? And everybody pointed at me, and they took away the paper. Wouldn’t let me draw for the rest of second grade and that was the beginning and end of my formal institutional art career. And now, 50 years later, I own the epicenter of art. The Velveteria Museum of Velvet Painting in Chinatown, Los Angeles. And I’ve got a painting back here of Johnny Cash with his finger. So I got one finger for those guys left. They cut off all my fingers back in second grade but I got one finger left. And now I have the epicenter of art, and all those poor souls are in some other impedition, maybe.

What got you interested in velvet paintings?

Here’s what happened: We were in this, Bisbee Arizona. Caren, who I was with at the time, and I were looking around at stuff and we found a velvet painting of a naked lady with a blue afro. So I had a painting of JFK on velvet and I hadn’t seen a velvet painting in over 20, 25 years. We looked at each and go, “Whatever happened to these?” How’d they all disappear? And so we bought the one with the blue afro and then collected 30, 40, 50 more of them. We were living in Portland, Oregon. We had them up in our house, had a little party for a bunch of people, boring medical worker people who were looking at them and really reacting strongly and stuff. I said, “This is an interesting reaction to art.” So we then found a little basement storefront in Portland, Oregon and opened it up for like, 900 bucks a month.

Can you tell me what is the process of making a velvet painting?

Well, you don’t add any turpentine to the paint. You just use the paint directly as it is and you use it directly on the velvet. Some people are better than others. It covers subject matter from all eras. You want to think negative space, so like the black is just the velvet. They do like, a little thing behind them, you know. So they have a background. You’re adding light to darkness. Like canvas, you’re adding shadows and all the other colors and stuff. You have to think in reverse, is what artists tell me. The hardest thing about it is that you can’t go back and correct your mistakes. So if you mess up, you’re done.

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This guy Leeteg died in a motorcycle accident but he was the father of modern velvet painting. He took the five primary colors to Tahiti back in the 30s and got his velvet from a funeral home because they line their coffins with velvet. The thing about this is if I hadn’t come along and done this, or Caren and I, this would’ve all been lost in history. They used to be in bars. When I was growing up in Orange County, so if you’d see people on vacant lots selling these, like sometimes you see these guys selling these NFL blankets and stuff. You don’t even see those guys anymore, even! These guys were massive marketing down in the Mexican border from Tijuana. There’s a bunch of people with velvet painting factories, and they’re putting these out by the millions so like…Kiss, when Kiss came along. They were a big staple on velvet, and then Jimmy Hendricks. Anybody who died young and tragic got put on velvet. From Jesus to JFK. And so, then these art people go, “Oh. It’s like touristy stuff. Whatever.” That’s not art. Well they don’t teach you anything in art school except how to make money off your silly prowess and your so-called ego which is not talent.

What places did you look for for the paintings? Were they all just from Portland?

Well, we were just looking around. Different places. We were traveling up and down between San Francisco and Portland all the time so we hit…the velvet trail, we called it. We were always looking around. One day we called up all the thrift stores all over and asked them if they had any velvet paintings and most of them thought we were nuts or never heard of them! And then we found that there was a clown in this outskirts in Beaverton. So I go, “There’s a clown in Beaverton! Let’s go!” So we go over and get this clown for like, 5…8 dollars or whatever and that’s how we’re doing it. Just scouring, scouring. Then we had enough to open up so we opened up the place.

So that’s what it is. So then we got  Anthony Bourdain. He comes in, and I’m sitting there with Anthony Bourdain and Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote Fight Club. Chuck is a really cool guy, and Tony was great. So I’m sitting with these two guys, Caren and I, after we did the segment. I go, “Hey man. I’m sitting next to two big time writers in America. I need to write a book about this Tony, Chuck. Find me a publisher, get me a deal. I’m not fucking around, and Bourdain goes, “It would just be a coffee table book. You wouldn’t sell any. It’d hardly be worth doing, blah blah blah.” And I go, “Jeez, Tony. What a downer. I go, maybe we should go across the street to Lucky’s this bar. And I could go get some heroine, and we could go in the backlight room and shoot up and Chuck, here, has got another best-seller. And another blockbuster movie. How about that?”

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But then, we got our book. Chronicle Books over there, ended up writing a book. And so, it all worked out pretty good. And Tony Bourdain was one of the mainstays of keeping this thing alive. God bless him. And then, that year, right after Bourdain and about six or seven months of opening, I have a show back there. I have all these Michael Jackson paintings, and I put them together, and I called it From Botox to Detox. The surgical evolution of Michael Jackson. So Jay Leno, from the Tonight Show staff, they call up and say, “What’s in your velvet painting museum in little Portland, Oregon?” So I lay that thing about Michael Jackson on them. They sent Tom Greene up, and we were on the tonight show. We opened in December around The tonight show in the following September, and we taped it in July. I go, “I’ve got lightning in a bottle. Why am I sitting on a fucking moldy sponge in Portland, Oregon when I could be back home in the LA sunshine with the coolest thing in the world?” Right?

Is that what motivated you to move back?

Right? Right? Did you hear me? I go, “What the hell am I sitting in moldy Oregon?” Then, we were charging three dollars admission in Portland and these losers up there would just walk on by and go into Starbucks with that money. A five-dollar latte. And I go, “Well, look at that little design on your latte. That’s the highest form of art you’re ever gonna see. Before I poke your goddam eyes out!” It was too rainy, they’re too stupid. And they’re too bigoted. It’s just very very bigoted out there. I would never have this guy stand in front of my shop. (An elderly Chinese man sits at the front of Baldwin’s museum regularly.) He always asks me if I have comida. I’m sitting there talking Spanish to a Chinese man in the middle of Los Angeles. That’s what I love about LA. You know, it’s everything. Everybody’s here.

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You can check out the Velveteria and chat with Carl in Chinatown at 711 New High Street Los Angeles, CA 90012

Hours: Wednesday-Monday 11am-6pm

Katrina Yentch
Katrina Yentch

Writer, coffee guru, audiophile, and L.A. native with a B.A. in Literary Journalism from U.C. Irvine. Other side passions and endeavors include public radio, hiking, and playing big Japanese drums.
IG: @ohnoitskatrina & WordPress: katrinatypes.wordpress.com