Category Archives: art

A Velvet Painting Maquiladora in Juárez

From Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration, by Sam Quinones (U. New Mexico Press, 2007), pp. 128-130:

[Doyle] Harden and [Leon] Korol—a Georgia country boy and a blunt Chicago Jew—would become fast friends, business partners, and would transform the marketing of velvet painting in America.

“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.


Filed under art, economics, Mexico, migration, U.S.

Paducah’s Men in Quilts

Paducah 1873One of the artistic highlights of our recent Great Square Route around the eastern U.S. (MN – MS – GA – CT – MN) was the stunning Museum of the American Quilting Society in Paducah, Kentucky, which had just opened a special exhibit, 4 Guys & Their Quilts:

On exhibit May 16-August 12, these quilts combine the talents of four male award-winning quilters: John Flynn, Gerald E. Roy, Arturo Alonzo Sandoval and Ricky Tims. MAQS Curator of Collection Judy Schwender is proud to bring lesser known viewpoints from the quilting world to the Museum’s visitors.

“Any quilt reveals the sensibilities of its maker, and men bring perspectives to quilting that are unique to the medium,” Schwender explains. “Within the world of quilting, men are a minority, and the museum is committed to presenting quilting viewpoints of underserved populations.”

My favorite among the 4 Guys was Ricky Tims, whose work ranges from exquisite variations on traditional quilting patterns, like his Bohemian Rhapsody or New World Symphony, to renditions in fabric of depictive art that would not look out of place on a framed canvas or in stained glass, like his South Cheyenne Canyon or Glen Eyrie Castle.

Among the new quilting terms and techniques I learned about at the museum was trapunto (also called “stuffed work”), a texture-enhancing technique that Tims puts to fine use in his Rhapsody in Green.


Filed under art, travel, U.S.

Doris Duke’s Islamic Art Shangri-La

Here‘s an interesting perspective on Doris Duke and her Shangri-La residential tribute to Islamic art, which I recently had the chance to visit. It’s by Sharon Littlefield, the Consulting Curator of Islamic Art for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation/Honolulu Academy of Arts.

While the American heiress Doris Duke (1912-93) succumbed to an elite desire to collect, display, and donate, her chosen field of Islamic art and architecture was at odds with the legitimacy her social circle sought in their collecting. Moreover, relocating such art to her private home in Hawaii effectively estranged her from all established patterns of art collecting. Likely, her motivation to both acquire Islamic art and create an Islamicate estate for its display was driven, in part, by the very need to dissociate herself from her peers and her inherited lifestyle. But, profoundly drawn to Islamic aesthetics, she continued to collect right up to her death. She did not simply reject her own culture, but actively embraced Islamic ones. Despite being intensely private, Duke decreed that her estate, baptized Shangri-La, should be opened to the public following her death. Scheduled to open in October 2002, Shangri-La stands as a significant Islamicate monument, a fact which has, and will likely continue, to perplex those who cross its threshold.

I managed to check my cynicism and class resentment at the door and came away thoroughly fascinated. It’s well worth a visit. The virtual tour is also first-rate.

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Filed under art, Hawai'i, Mediterranean, Middle East

Cronaca on Forgeries

Cronaca, who has returned from a brief hiatus, has an interesting post on art forgeries.

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Ukiyoe Animé

This is just too cool: animated Ukiyoe (‘floating world pictures’) –> Ugokie (‘moving pictures’). The latter consists of a gallery with labels crediting the original artist whose work inspired the animation. The labels are only in Japanese, but you don’t have to know a lot to recognize Hiroshige, Hokusai, the 36 views of Mt. Fuji, the 53 stages of the Tokaido, or even Utamaro and Eizen.

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Filed under art, Japan

Kobayashi Kiyochika: Woodblock Print War ‘Photographer’

I can’t leave the subject of woodblock print artists without mentioning Kobayashi Kiyochika (surname first), a woodblock print artist trained in Western art and photographic techniques. After fighting as a low-level samurai for the Tokugawa shogunate against the successful restoration of the Meiji emperor, he found himself at loose ends after the fighting stopped.

In the beginning he tried to keep his neck above water-level with some odd jobs. Later from about 1875 on, he tried his luck as self-taught painter. He had met Charles Wirgman, an English painter, cartoonist and correspondant for a British newspaper in Yokohama. Kobayashi studied arts with him for a short period. He also met Shimooka Renjo, a photographer, from whom he learned the principles of photography.

From 1876 on Kobayashi Kiyochika created his first woodblock prints, scenes from Tokyo. Although his prints were basically kept in traditional Japanese style, [he] used Western elements like perspective, the effect of light and the graduations of shadows. By that time he probably had read about the French impressionists and seen photographs of their works in newspapers.

After 1880 [his] style became more traditional. He also turned to satirical cartoons and illustrations for newspapers and magazines. During the Sino-Japanese war the artist made about 80 war prints. War prints were like a last commercial resurgence of the old ukiyo-e business. Kobayashi’s war prints are regarded as among the best in this genre – with a masterly play on the effects of light.

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts mounted an exhibition of late Meiji prints in 2001, and still has many such prints online. Among the most striking of Kobayashi’s prints are:

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Filed under art, China, Japan, war

Karhu and Jacoulet – Foreign Japanese Woodblock Print Artists

The two most famous exponents of the art of the Japanese woodblock print in [the 20th] century are not Japanese. Clifton Karhu, whose views of Kyoto’s traditional architecture can be seen on the walls of European galleries and American museums, was born in Duluth, Minnesota in 1927. Paul Jacoulet, creator of a gold and platinum Asia that existed mostly in the artist’s fantasy-filled imagination, came to Japan at an early age from France.At first glance, other than being foreign woodblock print artists, these two men would seem to have little in common. Karhu carves his own blocks and adheres to the relatively new Sosaku Hanga (Creative Print) school. Jacoulet, on the other hand, adopted the style of the Shin Hanga (New Print) movement, whose members followed in the footsteps of such ukiyo-e (floating world picture) masters as Utamaro and Hiroshige, who designed and directed the production of their prints, leaving the carving of blocks and pulling of paper to master craftsmen.

For me, Jacoulet the Liar is the more interesting, for the following reason.

Jacoulet earned himself a place in history not just as an artist but as a source of information on Micronesia under Japanese rule. He was one of very few foreigners trusted enough by Japanese officials to be allowed to travel through a vast area of mandated territory in the Western Pacific which the Japanese military was fortifying illegally in preparation for war. Jacoulet’s disdain for the real world of political and economic forces seems to have been well known. As Yun Hwa Rah put it, “The sensei [master] made a point of not reading any newspapers. He said they were full of lies.” In contrast to his postwar prints, which are almost entirely the product of fantasy, his pre-World War II work is grounded in real experiences. In his 1928 watercolor, Talaos Boy, Jacoulet meticulously records his young fisherman subject’s sunken chest and distended belly, signs that life in the South Seas fell far short of the paradise depicted by Gaugin and other European painters.

These quotes are from an article by Andrew Horvat entitled Karhu and Jacoulet: Western Artists Working in an Eastern Medium, a revised version of an article that appeared in the 40th anniversary issue (October-December 1994) of The Japan Quarterly, published by Asahi Shimbun. Jacoulet’s depictions of Yapese will illustrate his blend of accuracy, especially in props, and fantasy, especially in colors and faces.

  • Belle de Yap et orchidees, Ouest Carolines (1934) accurately depicts a traditional woman’s hairdo, tattoos, betelnut-stained lips, grass skirt, and neckcord indicating a woman who has passed puberty, but goes a bit overboard on the decorative cloth strips.
  • Un homme de Yap, Ouest Carolines (1935) accurately depicts a traditional Yapese man’s hairdo, three-pronged comb (or pick), pierced and distended earlobe, betelnut-stained lips, and starfruit hanging in the background, but goes overboard in the necklace decorations.
  • Femme tatouee de Falalap, Ouest Carolines (1935) accurately depicts tattoos, shells, Ulithian lavalava patterns, and even windswept hair, but the face is right off the kabuki stage.
  • Fleurs violettes, Tomil, Yap (1937) accurately depicts a woman’s hairdo, neckcord, betelnut-stained lips and teeth, and hanging flowers. (This is my personal favorite. Tomil is where I first learned to chew betel nut.)
  • Sur le sable, Rhull, Yap (1937) accurately depicts a married woman’s sitting posture, neckcord, and possibly even bracelet, but makes the woven frond basket look too much like canvas, and the grass skirt look too much like vinyl.
  • Yagourouh et Mio, Yap, Ouest Carolines (1938) accurately depicts the grass skits, lack of neckcord, and perhaps unruly hair of two pubescent girls, but makes the faces look too much like the Japanese moga (‘modern girl’)
  • Le betel, Yap (1940) accurately depicts a man’s loincloth, decorative comb, leaf armband, bamboo betel lime dispenser, and pepper betel leaf, but makes the hair look too much like a Japanese moga.

After the war Jacoulet progressively loses touch with reality. It’s not just that memories of Micronesia fade, because certain aspects remain remarkably accurate.

  • La jeune chef Saragan et son esclave Forum, Tomil, Yap (1948) accurately recognizes the caste system of Yap, but fakes the colors and the decorative carvings.
  • La tresseuse de paniers, Remoue, Yap (1948) fairly accurately depicts a woman weaving basketlike objects, but fakes both the color and the weave, so she looks like she’s weaving giant peapods.
  • Le fille du chef, Mogomog [Ulithi] (1953) is almost as much pure fantasy as his mermaid (1951).


Filed under art, Japan, Micronesia