Thank goodness for the Blue Star Families organization and their collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Department of Defense. Blue Star Museums, the product of this partnership, offer Servicemembers and their families free admission from Memorial Day to Labor Day. Before I even buy the steaks for the grill that last week in May, I’m searching the website for museums that have, once again, agreed to participate in this incredible opportunity.
As I was telling Neal last night, these programs make it possible for military families all over the country to visit world-class museums. Not every duty station is teeming with free museums, like the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. Not every duty station’s COLA (Cost of Living Adjustment) adequately bridges the gap between what the Servicemember is paid and what it costs to live and thrive in that city, as is the case with Los Angeles. We have become increasingly dependent on Blue Star Museums, the Commissary and the Base Exchange for providing entertainment and necessities at a cost that is consistent with Neal’s pay.
Plus, we find museums that we may have never discovered otherwise.
Like the Velveteria; The Museum of Velvet Paintings in the Chinatown district of L.A.
I would be straight up lying if I said my reasons for wanting to visit this museum were completely honorable. I wasn’t there to discuss the evolution of kitsch art or to debate where velvet painting fits into American art history. I wanted to see as many Velvet Elvises as possible, even better if one is naked. I wanted to snicker in the back room like a 12-year boy with a stolen copy of Playboy. I wanted to be shocked and wildly amused by the creations of those who live on the artistic fringe. And don’t get me wrong…there was plenty of that to be had.
Not to mention the entire hallway devoted to Elvis, which is ironically (maybe) right next to the restroom…
What’s not to love? What’s not to laugh at? Until you meet the co-owner of the museum, Carl Baldwin, and you inhale a bit of his passion. It’s intoxicating and contagious. He and co-owner, Caren Anderson, relocated the Velveteria from Portland, Oregon to Chinatown in 2013. They have an extensive collection of velvet paintings; over 3000 pieces to date. They proudly display about 400 of them at any given time. And Carl is always on hand to tell you the stories (good, bad and ugly) about each painting.
We met Carl at the entryway of the museum, which is just an unassuming storefront in a Chinatown strip of nail salons, Asian grocers and empty shops. It isn’t in the cleanest area of town. And walking through the door of the museum (which is more like someone arranged 400 pieces of art in a nail salon next door to Office Depot) is overwhelming. Paintings stacked on the floor, overlapping each other on the walls. Don’t touch, I whispered to Blue. But I have to go to the bathroom, whimpered Blue. Carl noticed Blue squirming with his hand on his pants and said Oh you gotta go when nature calls. Right through that curtain, straight back, hang a right and then a left. I took Blue and my phone (just in case). The bathroom did not disappoint.
And it was perfectly clean and well-stocked. This was off to a decent start.
We re-joined Neal at the entrance where Carl was recalling story after story to 2 women who were visiting from out of town. Their genuine interest in each piece kept Carl busy, but Blue was getting antsy so we mentioned we were military and that the museum is listed on this year’s Blue Star Museums registry. That’s when we learned that Carl, a seemingly free-wheeling, possibly VW bus-driving velvet art connoisseur, is the son of a war veteran. He has strong feelings about supporting the military and thanked Neal repeatedly for his service. I thanked him for extending his gratitude to the families. After all, Blue had just finished 6 weeks in a new school and I was still unpacking the garage. Showing appreciation for our sacrifice will win me over every single time.
Then he encouraged us to take pictures and ask as many questions as we wanted. In the meantime, we heard him recounting stories of the many studios who have called to borrow a certain piece for a TV show or movie they were shooting. He mentioned how he came to own some pieces, their provenance. And he talked about the artists themselves. Carl and Caren’s museum features velvet paintings from every genre and from every period of time.
The velvet painting rendition of The Blue Boy, the non-velvet version hung in my grandparents’ house until they died.
Michael Jackson, from botox to detox.
Willie Nelson against a backdrop of incredibly detailed Spaniards and Egyptians.
And these beautiful pieces by another Veteran. If I wasn’t standing there looking at it, I would never imagine you could get paint such a realistic scene on velvet. What freaking talent.
But the art isn’t the only thing that draws the eye in this museum. Knick-knacks, tchotchkes and hand-scrawled notes describing pieces adorn the walls and furniture. This is Carl and Caren’s way of curating a museum and it’s absolute charming, if a little mind-numbing. When your eye leaps from this…
it’s a little hard to know where to stop.
And then there’s the black-light room.
I would have been disappointed if a velvet painting museum didn’t have a black-light room. This really rounded out the experience. There was also a nude women’s room. And this clever reminder on the restroom door.
And just so, so, so, so much more. I’m not even sure I can review this museum with the justice and credit it deserves. There are few things in life that must be seen to be believed. This is one of them. After 45 minutes, Blue was over it. He was hungry and, most likely, completely over-stimulated. But if anyone wants to go back, I’m happy to drive. We barely scratched the surface of what Carl knows, what he and Caren own. It is worth checking out during the Blue Star Museums program, but I would also happily hand over my $10 for another walk through.
If you see Carl, tell him that Army Wife from Kentucky sent ya!
If you go, there is metered street parking on Alpine Street, 2 hour limit. This also 0.3 miles from Olvera Street, in case you hear a churro or taquito calling your name. And check out this little blurb about Velveteria by Atlas Obscura.