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Monday, December 14, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Voluptuous Visions In Velvet -- Seattle Museum Strives To Bring Respectability To The Art

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Black velvet paintings! The three words conjure up pinups executed on plush backgrounds, Tijuana matadors or the decor in trailer-parks. What they don't suggest to many folk is a serious art form - or a special moment in Pacific Rim history.

It's different for The Museum of Velvet Paintings: a group of friends, critics, donors and velvet-painting fans. This museum is co-curated by two velvet collectors: Seattle rock promoter David Price and retailer Dan Eskenazi. It may have no premises yet, but it already has plenty of art. It also has a board of directors, a new collection and big ambitions.

A recent monthly meeting, in fact, is a celebration. After a lavish buffet (from oysters to sushi), museummembers settle in to view a special film. This is the brand-new documentary "Velvet Dreams," in which five Seattleites involved with the project are interviewed.

Shot in Tahiti, Australia, Seattle and New Zealand, "Velvet Dreams" is the work of a Samoan filmmaker, Sima Urale. Urale, whose "O Tamaiti" won a top award at the Venice Film Festival in 1996, received backing from New Zealand public television. In detailing the evolution of black-velvet painting, her film unveils the genre's master: Edgar Leeteg. Leeteg was a name famous during the '40s and '50s, heyday of the "dusky maiden," the Tiki bar and suburban luau. Today his moniker is largely forgotten; that's something the new museum is determined to change with its own research and collection of Leetegs.

Although Edgar William Leeteg hailed from Illinois, he was the man who truly popularized black-velvet painting. From the mid-'30s until the early '50s, he exported hundreds of works from his home in French Polynesia. The most imitated art of the entire velvet genre, Leetegs both mythologize and eroticize the Pacific.

The work displays conceits that plague most colonized cultures: an interloper's images of a more "natural," sexualized world. During the 1890s, paintings by Paul Gauguin did the same. But Leeteg formalized an iconography of his own: nubile Micronesian women, brave warriors, cheerful children.

A genuine Leeteg can be worth as much as $17,000. But art-as-investment is not what drives the Museum project. To understand the group's interest, one must know about Leeteg's life.

He was born in 1904, the grandson of a graveyard sculptor. By 1924, Leeteg himself was a billboard artist. He discovered French Polynesia in 1930 - the result of a cheap package tour. Soon thereafter, he emigrated, partially driven by America's Depression.

But by the time he died in 1953, the artist was known throughout Micronesia. Part of his fame, of course, came from the velvets. The other half came from his reputation as a rogue.

His saga was chronicled by no less than James Michener, in the 1957 volume "Rascals in Paradise." The book pictures Leeteg as a quarrelsome neighbor, a feckless husband and a belligerent drinker. Since the artist's reputation vanished along with Tiki chic, little information exists to counteract this portrait. But Leeteg's art has gained respectability, and one reason is Seattle artist Charlie Krafft.

Leeteg's resurrection (as Urale's film explains) owes a great debt to Krafft's critical writings. In 1990, he penned an homage to the velvet maestro, which was published in Reflex magazine. Why did Krafft focus on such a forgotten talent? "Because he represented everything the establishment hates."

Krafft's research, however, found the macho legend deceptive. "Leeteg lived in the `Villa Velour,' this wild, pink island compound. But he also flew his aging mother Bertha out to join him. She ruled his life; he was totally a mama's boy." Bertha banned Leeteg's three wives and numerous girlfriends; she thought even the island's tropical fruits were dangerous.

"She insisted all their food come from cans," says Krafft. "So there they were, in this consummate tropical Paradise, dining on Dinty Moore stew and Campbell's soup."

Nevertheless, Leeteg reveled in the tropics. His velvets may be filled with beautiful women - but they also feature brilliant flowers, bright fabrics and glittering waterfalls. Striving to capture the island light was a real obsession. Leeteg's great secret here, says Krafft, was a limited palette. "The pile on velvet will dull or gum up all pigments. But, in addition to white, he used only seven colors. Leeteg built up the layers of paint very gradually." He also used an additive whose secret died with him.

The strangest part of Leeteg's story is his patrons. For years, he sold paintings, when he could, to bars and restaurants. Then he met Salt Lake City businessman Wayne Decker. Decker, a vacationing Mormon, somehow bonded with Leeteg's vision. He established a standing order for copies of "everything" Leeteg did - and his enthusiasm paid the painter's basic bills.

But an even odder character made the artist famous. This was Barney Davis, a former submarine sailor. In 1947, Davis moved to Honolulu, where he opened an "art shop and gallery." When asked for velvets, Davis hunted Leeteg down. He then set himself up as the artist's agent.

Davis made the painter sign each piece "Leeteg of Tahiti," fed the press news of his most outrageous exploits - and raised the prices of his velvets. He dubbed Leeteg "America's Gauguin" and compared his work to that of Goya, Rubens and Rembrandt. These cheeky tactics had explosive results: sales skyrocketed and, suddenly, Leetegs were everywhere. When the artist died in a motorcycle accident, Leeteg left behind more than 1,700 works.

The Museum of Velvet Paintings crew loves this saga, with its components of nudes, Mormons, bars and Mother. Yet they also want to bring the form itself approval. Says co-curator Price, "We know velvets have a place in both art and crafts history. So we're talking to some textile and cloth museums. We're even talking to the Vatican."

There is a reason for such lofty sentiments. Pre-Leeteg velvet painting has a serious history. Marco Polo found velvet paintings in Kashmir, where the cloth itself originated. In the Middle Ages, velvets were used to replicate tapestries; scenes were painted onto them, rather than woven in. Then, during the Meiji period (1868-1912) in Japan, artists made velvet paintings by first shaving the pile.

Victorian ladies in England practiced something called "theorem painting": forcing color onto velvet through a series of stencils. Says Meredith Tromble, the editor-in-chief of Artweek, "Theorem paintings are a real contribution to still-life traditions." But, says Tromble, Leeteg is special. "His portraits are the archetype for modern black velvets."

Leeteg was actually aware of his genre's traditions. He liked to say that velvet had been forced upon him - by a persuasive Tahitian shopgirl. (Leeteg also claimed he bought velveteen from the mortuary). In fact, however, it was a lifetime interest sparked by medieval velvets he had seen as a child. When he was "discovered" by Barney Davis, Leeteg had spent 14 years polishing up his technique.

Watching "Velvet Dreams" with a packed room of fans, it's clear why Leeteg's art now commands respect. In one engaging scene shot in Seattle, Krafft guides the viewer through a prototype of the museum. At the sight of their own paintings, Price and Eskenazi exhale. "Damn!" breathes co-curator Eskenazi. "Velvets are finally legitimate!"

That's a tall order, of course, even for public broadcasting. But art guru Greg Escalante agrees. President of the Board of Trustees at Huntington Beach Art Center, Escalante has spent five years pitching a Leeteg show. Now, it's opening in February. Says he, "You always have the art that gets official approval. But you also have these people on the edges. They can be original, too, and they influence culture."

This is what fascinated filmmaker Sima Urale. After all, the culture Leeteg pictures is hers. "I was taken by these beautiful images of Polynesian women, being one myself, but I was also taken by the men behind them. Why are these women portrayed so sensually? For me, the subject goes much deeper than the velvet tapestry."

Urale wanted to prove "that velvets are worthy of recognition, that they are as aesthetically pleasing as any Renoir and as technically good as any Gauguin." Yet she knows the Leeteg woman remains problematical.

That's why her film features historian Lisa Tauoma. The "dusky maiden," says Tauoma, dates back to the turn of the century. "She was an image designed to make the region seem less strange. She was pictured as alluring, available and acquiescent. These things made a strange place seem less threatening."

The real "maiden," says Tauoma, was substantially altered. "The exported images are never too dark; their hair is not frizzy. In the pre-Conquest Pacific, women had short hair, hair that was brushed straight up with grapefruit sap. The reality was very, very different."

No one in "Velvet Dreams" calls Leeteg a realist, nor does anyone on the museum team. But all of them relish the richness of his legacy, the depth of his technique, the wealth of fabulous stories he left.

"Leeteg is now all over the place," says Eskenazi. "At auctions, in museums, on the World Wide Web. But there is no genuine authority on him."

That is another aim for the would-be museum. And progress toward the goal is accelerating. Last week, they clinched the sale of a prize collection, paintings Price had pursued for the past two years. In 1999, they promise, Seattle will see those Leetegs.

Samoa's Rev. Muq Strickson-Pau wishes them luck. Clearly, Strickson-Pau enjoyed his own role in Urale's film. "Velvet," he notes, "has always been iconographic. It has always been a centerpiece in Samoan homes. Elvis, Jesus, the Last Supper scenes - they're all prominent."

Then he smiles and exudes a tiny sigh. "Still, in my line of work, I don't meet many topless women." That, he thinks, is perhaps best left to museums.

----------------- Want more velvet? -----------------

Contact The Museum of Velvet Paintings at 206-679-5777 or by e-mail at Leetegvelvet@hotmail.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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