PORTLAND — Ever since Caren Anderson and Carl Baldwin opened Velveteria — possibly the only museum in the world devoted to velvet paintings — the pair have seemed to personify the "Keep Portland Weird" mystique.
For the past four years, Anderson and Baldwin have invited visitors to share their passion for the underdog art of velvet painting, or as they put it on a sign at the entrance: "a life-changing experience! Without crawling over broken glass or walking on hot coals!"
Velveteria is the sort of idiosyncratic labor of love that turns up in national stories about Portland, as evidence of the city's quirky creativity. Anderson and Baldwin have been featured on CBS' "Sunday Morning," Anthony Bourdain's Travel Channel show, "No Reservations" and "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," to name a few. They've written a book about their collection, "Black Velvet Masterpieces: Highlights From the Collection of the Velveteria Museum," from Chronicle Books.
But, come Jan. 24, Anderson and Baldwin are closing the Velveteria doors. The couple are selling their Southeast Portland house, and moving to Southern California.
On a recent afternoon, Anderson arrives at Velveteria, located in an incongruously bland-looking storefront at 2448 E. Burnside St. Inside, though, Anderson walks through the hot-pink crushed velvet curtain that leads to the museum ("if you are here consider yourself a true original," reads another sign). The walls are crowded with nearly 400 examples of velvet painting — only a sampling of the couple's 2,000-and-growing personal collection.
There's the so-called "Unicorn Combover," a fanciful depiction of a white unicorn whose mane magically becomes a woman's platinum hairdo; portraits of everyone from Abraham Lincoln to a nearly nude Anderson Cooper; vintage Polynesian landscapes and voluptuous naked women; a shrine to Michael Jackson.
Some paintings are accompanied by handwritten signs with Anderson and Baldwin's comments. Next to a portrait of a neatly groomed dog, for example, a piece of paper reads: "Beaver Cleaver's mom if she was a poodle."
Portland has been good to them, Anderson says, as she sits on a leopard-skin-patterned bench in the museum, surrounded by velvet visions they rescued from basements and thrift stores. But Anderson and Baldwin, both 56, are California natives and have been wanting to go back for a while. Baldwin doesn't like Portland's weather. Anderson misses ocean warm enough to swim in on the spur of the moment.
Anderson admits the move is bittersweet. "In Portland, you can kind of do your own thing," she says. "But I'm craving something more culturally and ethnically diverse. I just crave a bigger cultural base."
And while Velveteria — a name the couple trademarked — has gotten plenty of publicity, the business side of the enterprise hasn't worked out so well. "Frankly, the economy here's so bad," Anderson says. Not that it's so great in California, either, she admits, but adds that the sinking value of Southern California real estate has made housing more affordable.
Anderson, a retired psychiatric nurse, admits she's not a natural when it comes to running a business. They've never made any real money from Velveteria, she says, but up until the past year or so they never faced the prospect of going into debt to keep the place open. Two years ago, they moved from their original, cramped space to this new one, but the rent is more than three times as much. That hasn't helped.
"We were making it, but then the economy went really sour. This is a tricky business. We needed more people to come in all year-round," she says, in addition to the tourists who showed up during the summer.
"I'm not slamming Portland," Baldwin says, "but it's not in the top 20 resort destinations."
As word spreads about the upcoming closure, more Portlanders are coming in. This afternoon, a steady stream shows up, most of them young. Many say they've never been before. Always meant to come. How sad they are that it's closing. Others say this place is "so Portland."
"It is, and it isn't," says Anderson. "Carl and I came out of the whole Los Angeles thing, we lived near Hollywood. I felt like we didn't limit ourselves. I think Portlanders do."
Though she has cried, Anderson says, about leaving the state where she has lived for 30 years, she's also a bit tired of being identified with "Keep Portland Weird."
"That was never something we intentionally meant to do," she says. And anyway, she adds, the "Keep Portland Weird" slogan is borrowed from Austin, Texas, which originated the mantra.
Baldwin, who has lived here for 10 years, sometimes gets a bit cranky about Portland and "all these young creatives sitting in coffeehouses and trying to look like James Dean, or whoever the latest guy is." But in the next breath, he adds, "I'm going to miss it here."
And they're by no means done with velvet paintings. As Anderson writes in their book, for all the scorn the form is subject to, "There is something comforting about velvet paintings — dark like the womb, mysterious and yet very familiar ... Velvet is soft to the touch, like very short fur, and feels like life."
"We plan to re-emerge," Baldwin says, and reopen Velveteria once they find a place to live in Southern California.
But for some Portlanders, it won't be the same. "Here come our number one fans," Baldwin says, as he spots two people approaching the door. David Roberts, 34, and his wife, Jamie, 32, are regulars. The Southwest Portland couple moved from New York just a few months before Velveteria opened.
"This is one of my favorite places in Portland," says David.
Jamie admires the dedication Anderson and Baldwin have for velvet painting, and the couple's expertise on its history and traditions.
"This is a cultural institution," says David. "And we're going to miss it."