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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

His relentless Honolulu agent, a former submarine sailor named "Aloha" Barney Davis, helped drum up interest in Leeteg's work, calling him "the American Gauguin" and comparing him to Goya, Rubens and Rembrandt. The praise was larger than life, but so was the painter.

As Michener told it, Leeteg spent six days a week on the paintings, working on several at once. On his one free day, Tuesday, he hopped a boat from Moorea to Papeete for his weekly binge.

"I have boozed more, fought more and thrown more wild parties than anyone else on the island, but it's all good publicity and gets me talked about plenty, and that's what sells pictures," Michener quoted Leeteg as saying.

Among those "pictures" luring Leeteg fans to the Huntington Beach were versions of some of his all-time hits: a grinning, bare-breasted woman in a wide-brimmed yellow hat named "Hina Rapa" and an ancient man, face etched in wrinkles, called "The Old Chief." Leeteg repeated his big sellers again and again, and willingly changed them a little -- adding a tear here, a smile there -- to suit a buyer. He painted occasionally from models but mostly from photographs -- often copied without credit from books and magazines.

Leeteg and his agent referred to the works simply by number, using a list they'd made up. "Will do several for you of 127," he would write to Davis, "and then discontinue this number."

Leeteg's style

Admirers of Leeteg note his delicate style, how he painted in thin layers that did not crush the velvet, and the luminous nature of his portraits, done in colors mixed by hand directly on the material. They emphasize how -- unlike cheap black velvets -- his images appear three-dimensional, jumping off the fabric almost like holographs.

They also love the beautiful island women, many painted from old photographs taken long before Leeteg's day.

"A friend of mine gave me one for my birthday. [The subject] looks about 15 years old, smiling, with a hibiscus in her ear," said businessman Rusty Vasterling, 48, of Newport Beach, Calif., as he toured the exhibition on a recent afternoon.

"I love her. She's beautiful. I call her the daughter I never had," he added as he gazed at other Leeteg women.

Visitors who saw the "Hina Rapa" at the exhibit could head down the Pacific Coast Highway a few miles to see another in a more likely setting -- behind a bar. This beauty has been behind glass for years at Billy's at the Beach, where her image can also be found (along with the bar's name) on mai tai glasses, placemats, T-shirts and water bottles.

It's fitting, since Leeteg handed over his first velvets to settle his bar tabs. His first big sales went to island-themed bars, places like Don the Beachcomber, the Seven Seas Club and Trader Vic's.

To Mark McAdams, a 49-year-old optometrist who flew from San Francisco to see the show, it was the story of the hard-drinking Casanova that first intrigued him at age 16, when he lived in Hawaii, where his father, a naval officer, was stationed. McAdams read the Michener account of the painter and never forgot it.

As a young man, McAdams headed to Club Med in Tahiti, mostly to try to get a glimpse of where Leeteg had lived. He went to Honolulu and visited Davis' Leeteg gallery. Then in 1976 he bought a Leeteg painting of a naked woman standing in a stream with a waterfall behind her. He paid $4,500 for the painting. Now one of three Leetegs he owns, it is his prized possession.

"I have an original Audubon print from 1836 and it's the real deal and it's nice," he says. "But I like the Leeteg better."

Pub Date: 4/13/99

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