“He changed my life in the velvets,” Harden said of Korol, who died in 2004 at the age of seventy-seven.
Harden had been sending a semi truck a week back to his Georgia warehouse. But Korol believed velvet had national potential. He was the first customer to buy an entire truckload of Harden velvets from Juarez. Within a month, he had ordered five trucks of paintings delivered to Chicago. He kept this up for years. Velvet paintings filled the cavernous warehouse at the Leon Korol Company in Chicago, exuding a smell of oil paint and fabric that years later Korol’s sons still remembered….
It was to meet this demand that, in 1972, Korol fronted the money with which Harden built a block-long velvet-painting factory on a Juárez vacant lot belonging to a Mexican customs commandant. The factory soon hummed with three shifts a day.
Harden’s velvet-painting factory is legendary among Juárez old-timers. It was really a cluster of about two dozen studios of different sizes—each with a master painter and team of assistants. Harden provided the materials and paid dollars for everything the master and his crew could churn out.
Harden tested the painters to see who could paint the best trees, or waterfalls, or clouds. Then he set up production lines. Each studio had a wooden shelf along which the artists would slide the paintings. One man would paint the clouds, slide the canvas to the next fellow, who’d paint the sun. The third guy would paint the mountains and slide it to the guy who’d paint the stream. And so it went until the painting was finished. A crew of framers cut the velvet, stapled it to frames, and fed blank canvases into the maw of it all.
An assembly line for handmade art, the factory was one of the first maquiladoras in a town now dominated by them. Each studio was designed so no painter used more than one color and thus avoided wasting time by switching or cleaning his brushes.
Each day, after reviewing sales orders, the master painters chose the subjects to be painted: a landscape, an eagle, a wolf, an Aztec warrior, a pachuco by his car. An assistant forged the master’s name on each painting. As soon as it was done, the artwork was in a truck and on its way to some far-off part of the United States, sometimes arriving still wet.
Two big rigs would leave Harden’s factory for the United States every day. Urged on by Leon Korol, who bought from no one else, Harden reached awesome heights in velvet production. A dozen or more competitors followed his lead into mass production. A man named Molina had a studio of twenty or more of Juárez’s best artists to whom he paid cash every day; it was accessible off a downtown back street with security guards vetting each person who wanted to enter. But no one equaled Harden’s volume.
In typical Quinones fashion, this chapter is a collection of interrelated stories about unusual people:
- Edgar Leeteg (1904–1953), the weird kid from East St. Louis, Illinois, who moved with his mother to Tahiti, where he became the father of modern velvet painting
- Aloha Barney Davis, who marketed Leeteg’s work in Hawai‘i, from which it spread to San Diego, then to Tijuana and other towns along the U.S.–Mexican border.
- Chuy Morán, the hardscrabble artist who became the king of Juárez velvet painters and, for a time, a very wealthy man.
- A.M. Shawar and other Palestinian emigrés in Edmonton, Alberta, who sold velvet paintings all over the Great White North, even flying them into isolated villages in the Canadian outback.
- Hundreds of Scientology students in Florida who paid for their schooling by hawking velvet paintings during “velvet’s last hurrah” during the 1980s.