Velvet Elvis

Those of us of a certain age smile nostalgically at the phrase “flower power”,  or at the name Joan Baez. We remember when Mama Cass wasn’t all that fat, and what we were doing the first time we heard “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Many of us, huddled in our incense-perfumed dorm rooms way back then, probably spent too much time gazing at a piece of painted black velvet hanging on the wall, illuminated by an ultraviolet light that made the colors either pleasing or irritating, depending on one’s state of mind at the time.

Alas, flower power is now relegated to Smith and Hawkins catalogs. Joan Baez these days looks like everyone’s grandmother, Mama Cass has long been singing with the angels, and Iron Butterfly is the answer to a hippie trivia question. But painted black velvet remains, a reminder of youthful exuberance and indiscretion.

These ruminations were prompted by the sight of just such an item one recent afternoon at Smiley’s Antique Mall. It was a quiet Wednesday, with only one other browser intently studying a set of porcelain candlesticks in the shape of buxom women. But there, amid the clutter of hula dancer lamps and Little Lulu lunchboxes, hung a black velvet painting of a lion’s head in vivid oranges and deep brown, a classic example of velvet’s ability to lend texture and depth to painted images. Memories surged and the search was on for more.

“It’s the only one in the place,” the sales clerk said. “There used to be a man in the main shed across the way that did them, but he’s been long gone.” Then she leaned forward, as if to impart the secret of velvet paintings. “If you find one of Elvis, let me know. My son’s looking for one. He’ll pay up to fifty dollars for it.”

Fifty dollars turned out to be top dollar on eBay for a classic velvet Elvis. Other subjects were being offered for as little as twelve dollars – women with little or no clothing, a menagerie of wild animals, mountain scenes, Indian chiefs, the New York skyline. But what about actual, not virtual, velvet? 

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