Velvet art for connoisseurs

Kitsch: The original velvet artist was a South Pacific scalawag, and his work is coming back into favor.

April 13, 1999|By Nita Lelyveld | Nita Lelyveld,KNIGHT RIDDER-TRIBUNE

Velvet Elvis lives a lowdown life, stuck in cheesy motel rooms, smoky barrooms, swap-meet sales. Velvet Jesus gets hawked by the highway, sold from the backs of pickups with Velvet Sinatra and Velvet John Wayne.

For sheer kitsch value, black velvet paintings have always had fans. But respect for the highbrow variety -- yes, there is such a thing -- has been hard to come by until recently.

But in places such as chic, white-walled Huntington Beach Arts Center in Southern California, an art form generally scorned and reviled in museum circles is now being celebrated. So is the man some might blame for spawning the trend of mass-produced black-velvet cheesecake pinups and circus clowns.

His name was Edgar Leeteg and he lived on the island of Moorea in Tahiti. Before he died at the tender age of 48 in 1953 (accidentally flung off the back of a motorcycle), he managed to churn out 1,700 velvet paintings.

In doing so, the former commercial sign painter made himself the stuff of myth -- a self-described "fornicating, gin-soaked dopehead" who created much of his wildness to sell paintings. And sell them he did -- for as much as $15,000 a pop at the time of his death -- shipping them out by the dozens to hang over Midwestern mantelpieces.

Writer James Michener celebrated "Leeteg the Legend" in a 1957 book, "Rascals in Paradise," a title borrowed for the just-closed Huntington Beach exhibit: "A Rascal in Paradise: The Velvet Paintings of Edgar Leeteg."

The painter's favorite subjects: naked or bare-chested island beauties, smiling alluringly or coyly sipping from coconut shells. His buyers: South Sea tourists and tiki-themed restaurants marketing escapist island fantasies the world over.

These days, of course, the tiki lounge is back in fashion, popular with a young crowd that revels in bygone ideas of excess, puffing the cigars and sipping the martinis of their parents' generation. They hold backyard luaus, buy carved tiki lanterns, listen to island birdcalls and vibes of island lounger Martin Denny on CD.

"It has nonthreatening, whimsical, easily accessible appeal," says Otto von Stroheim, 35, publisher of a 'zine called the Tiki News. "It's romantic escapism, and people want that now. We're tired of reality. We want places to relax and slip away somewhere else."

In turn, velvet also is coming back, says one of the Leeteg exhibit's curators, John Turner of Berkeley, Calif. He and co-curator Greg Escalante have found enough interest to expand their exhibit catalog into a full-fledged coffee-table book on the father of velvet painting, due out in September. Their show was written up in publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to the National Enquirer.

"There's a `velvet underground' -- really, there is," says Turner, who calls Leeteg's works "ethnographic pin-ups." "And for those people, Leeteg is big."

David Price, who may well be the leader of that underground, recently acquired 25 Leetegs for the Museum of Velvet Painting he runs with friend Dan Eskenazi in Seattle. While they plot a possible second Leeteg exhibit this fall, they show their collection of various velvets, about 70 in all, in exhibitions at local clubs. One day, they hope it will have a permanent home.

"Velvet paintings, they're just very seductive, very sensual, very warm," Price says. "And at the time Leeteg was painting, he was really ahead of his time. It's the fact that he painted on velvet that put him in the realm of kitsch.

"I mean, it is kitsch, but it's also something more. It's the pre-World War II, pre-atomic bomb time for an area of paradise that was kind of tainted after the war. To me, looking at Leetegs is kind of like looking at a last glimpse of paradise."

Leeteg escaped to paradise during the Depression, after working for years painting billboards in Sacramento, Calif. A friend gave him a tip on a job decorating and doing lobby advertising for a new theater in Papeete, Tahiti. The job didn't materialize, but Leeteg stayed anyway. For a while, he worked as a sign painter in Honolulu, drinking and womanizing in his free time. Along the way, he started painting nudes -- on velvet, the story goes, only because the store he patronized was out of canvas one day.

Leeteg wasn't the first to paint on velvet by any means; velvet as a medium dates back to the 14th century. But he was the first to make velvet painting popular artwork for the masses -- selling his naked wahines to tourists who wanted to bring that island feeling back home to the mainland. His most ardent patron was a Salt Lake City jeweler who, after stumbling upon a Leeteg velvet in a shop at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Waikiki, commissioned the painter to send him at least 10 velvets a year.

Villa Velour

In his day, the American expatriate, born in 1904 in East St. Louis, Ill., won fame -- enough, anyway, to lure tourists by the boatload to his home, Villa Velour, an eccentric collection of buildings that included an ornate, marble-walled, 10-seat outhouse.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.