On a jaunt to Bisbee in the late '90s, Carl Baldwin and Caren Anderson made a discovery that put them on an unusual path: They wandered into a local shop and discovered a black-velvet painting of an African-American woman. She was nude, kneeling on a blanket and sporting a blue afro.
Baldwin and Anderson paid $29 for the painting and began traveling what they call "the velvet trail."
Enchanted by the mysterious woman with the blue afro, the couple "started looking for (black-velvet paintings) everywhere we went," Anderson says. "In the beginning, we bought anything."
Their collection grew to 50 paintings, displayed on the walls of their house.
"We had some friends over, and they were mocking them and ridiculing them," Baldwin says. "I thought, 'Wow! This gets quite a reaction.' This would be good for a museum. We put our heads together and came up with the name Velveteria."
Baldwin and Anderson continued collecting paintings from around the world. They opened the Velveteria Museum on Dec. 11, 2005. It was a rainy day in Portland, Ore., and only two people came into the museum.
However, as word spread about the museum, so did media attention. "A reporter from (a television station) in Seattle called and said he wanted to do a piece on us. That was our first interview," Anderson says.
The two were featured on Offbeat America on the HGTV Network. Anthony Bourdain of the Travel Channel stopped by the museum. So did Andrew Zimmern. The couple met Cheech Marin. They even appeared on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.
Baldwin says they've met quite a few characters on the velvet trail. A memorable one was Dr. Kitch—a former oral surgeon from Pasadena, Calif. He lost his fortune and was living in a Dodge conversion van in the middle of the California desert. Baldwin purchased more than 200 paintings from Kitch.
Interesting things also happened at the museum. Anderson recalls one young man who fell to the carpet, rolled around and moaned, "I could stay here forever." Another day, a woman exclaimed that she wanted to be buried there. A young couple from Austin, Texas, got engaged in the museum's black-light room.
Some of Baldwin and Anderson's experiences are highlighted in their book, Black Velvet Masterpieces: Highlights From the Collection of the Velveteria Museum. While doing research for the book, Anderson found a lot of background on black-velvet paintings.
"There's so much history that people don't understand," she says. "They were (making the paintings) in the early 1900s on silk velvet in Japan. ... In the Vietnam era, GIs would bring them back from their R&R in the Philippines. ... In the '60s and '70s, Mexico (painters) made a lot of border art. ... To us, it's not just about the paintings. There's so much rich history ... of popular culture.
"It takes a lot of skill to paint on black velvet. The finer paintings have seven layers. They paint one layer and let it dry and then build up. It's like watercolors where you can't really go over your mistakes," Anderson says.
The book highlights a variety of subject matter to reflect different cultures. There are nudes from Polynesia, Native Americans in full headdress, U.S. presidents, soldiers in Vietnam, leaders of the civil rights movement, popular musicians—and unicorns, clowns and animals. Some painters copied famous works by Rembrandt, Degas, Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. Baldwin and Anderson say Jesus is one of the most-painted figures—followed by Elvis.
While some might turn their nose up at anything on black velvet, Baldwin and Anderson don't seem to let that bother them. They closed their museum in January 2010 and look forward to showing some of their 3,000 paintings at more traveling shows, including the Lubbock (Texas) Arts Festival in April. They also want to open a museum in Southern California.
After that, who knows where the velvet trail will take them?