Paradise painted

And we're not talking about Elvis portraits.

Velvet paintings have a bad name, and most of them deserve it. Crude, mass-produced pictures of Elvis, JFK, and dogs playing pool are the norm. But velvet is a difficult medium to work with, and Edgar William Leeteg had a facility with it that approached genius. Inexpertly applied, paint will cake and clog the velvet nap. The black velvet dye can bleed even the brightest colors to muddy browns and dull, dirty grays. Leeteg knew black velvet like an astronomer knows the night sky. With an artist's instinct, he painted each individual strand, adding thin layers of color one at a time. He used a limited palette—only seven colors and white—but created results so rich that one observer said that he "painted with light."

Known to many as the American Gauguin, Leeteg (1904-1953) led a Jack Kerouac life, ghost-written by William Burroughs. An adventurer by nature, he fled civilization to lead a wild life in Tahiti. Even in a culture not known for its puritanism, he stood out, drinking, fighting, and wenching more than any six men. He once described himself as a "fornicating, gin-soaked dopehead."

But his carousing was a calculated pose to promote his art, and the staggering quantity of paintings he left behind (an average of three a month for 20 years) suggests that he was as much a workaholic as an alcoholic. A butcher's boy and the grandson of a graveyard sculptor in East Saint Louis, Leeteg picked cotton, herded cattle, and did factory work until he landed a job at 22 as a sign painter in Sacramento. When the Depression hit and the work ran out, Leeteg took a small inheritance and set sail for Tahiti with brushes stolen from the sign company and six mayonnaise jars full of paint. His first commissions—posters and lobby ads for theaters—barely put food on the table. He lived hand to mouth, restlessly experimenting with different painting surfaces, including wood and cloth. Finally, he hit on velvet—and struck gold. Leeteg circulated the story that his first velvet "canvas" came from a mortuary, suggesting a discovery born from desperation. But he knew velvet's potential; in museum visits, he had seen Renaissance and Victorian velvet paintings. Velvet became the perfect medium through which to express Leeteg's love of Tahiti's sensual beauties—the natural light, the landscape, and especially the native women.

Leeteg's paintings look like cheesecake photos in part because of thousands of untalented imitators. But take another look: His women are simply beautiful. Leeteg idealized Tahitian women as noble savages, with full breasts, fertile hips, and starry eyes. Tourists loved these souvenirs of the South Seas, and no doubt they were a brief holiday from Midwestern morality. More importantly, they represented an innocent sexuality. Like Eve, their nudity was without shame.

There's nothing abstract about Leeteg's paintings or the women in them, and this exhibit could be the most sensual spot in Bumbershoot's stimulation circus. Dave Price and Dan Eskenazi, co-curators of the Museum of Velvet Paintings, have created a quiet room, cloaked in blue velvet curtains. The paintings, many in their original bamboo frames, will hang on mahogany triptych panels. The air will be fragrant with Hawaiian pukaki flowers, and soft Martin Denny music will be playing.

Leeteg was a genuinely talented artist who painted accessible, even moving, subject matter. It's ironic, then, that his blue-collar goddesses have become "outsider" art. But Leeteg would not have wanted them shown in a rarefied aesthetic atmosphere. He once said: "My paintings belong in a gin mill, not a museum. If this modern crap is art, then just call my paintings beautiful. Don't call them art." ("Villa Velour: The Velvet Masterpieces of Edgar William Leeteg" shows in the Shaw Room through 9/9.)

Check out our Visual Arts picks for Bumbershoot.

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