Black Velvet, If You Please

Robyn Ludwig

The phrase “velvet painting” brings to mind crying clowns and softcore tropical nudes, stacked unceremoniously in thrift shops or flea markets. Among these you’re unlikely to find a valuable Edgar Leeteg, the only velvet artist to achieve any degree of name recognition; but you may happen upon a neglected gem by one of four Canadian women—Minn Sjolseth-Carter, Dorothy Francis, May Clarke, Joy Caros—who painted prolifically, pragmatically and obscurely, on velvet.

In my early twenties, I received my first piece of velvet art, a hideous, enormous still life of a bowl of fruit, purchased at Value Village by a friend as a gag gift for my birthday. Over the next two decades I’ve acquired three dozen velvet paintings, including a “Velvis” that I religiously lint brush, an unsigned, slightly crooked, crown-of-thorns Jesus haggled from a Winnipeg antiques shop, and a narrow assemblage of blue flowers on black velvet, with a typewritten inscription on pink card stock: “VI Waddington, Winnipeg.” A search revealed the artist as Viola Clara Martha Waddington (1916–23), whose obituary referred to unspecified “creative talents.” I feel object empathy for the paint-by-numbers kit paintings made by women artists like Waddington, a feeling as irrational as my affection for unattributed velvet paintings made in assembly-line factories. I rescue their velvety floral arrangements, consigned, as the unwanted craft projects of amateurs and hobbyists, to online classifieds, cobwebbed attics, garage sales. Or worse, to landfills. I trace the origins of my velvet hoarding tendencies to a fire that gutted my family home when I was twelve. I learned that the only safe attachment to possessions comes with things that are cheap, laughable, easily replaced.

In 218, I purchased, through Kijiji, a velvet portrait of an elderly Asian man, signed “Min Sjolseth” [sic] and entitled “Sommy Bing.” I discovered that Minn Sjolseth-Carter (1919–1995) was a Norwegian-born artist who settled in Vancouver in 1957 and opened the Minn-Tonge gallery, downtown on Pender Street. There she produced oil-on-black-velvet portraits of Asian and Polynesian men, women and children, in sufficient quantities to still appear regularly on auction sites. I got in touch with her daughter, the visual artist Laila Campbell, who stated bluntly in an email, “Somehow these works were very popular then.” Sjolseth-Carter closed the gallery in 1967, quitting velvet and committing herself exclusively to other media. After her death, much of her substantial body of work was accessioned by museums and galleries, but not one of her velvets.

In March 22 I spotted a Dorothy Francis (1923

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Robyn Ludwig

Robyn Ludwig is a script supervisor in the BC film and television industry. She holds a Master of Film and Literature from the University of York, UK. Her writing has been published in the Columbia Journal, Cartoon Research, Silent London and Vancouver Observer.


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