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Saturday, December 16, 2006

"Elvis was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge's name was good upon 'Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Elvis was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don't mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country's done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Elvis was as dead as a door-nail".

Okay, wait. I have my stories mixed up. Elvis is in fact, dead, but I think we're talking about A Christmas Carol here, not the King. So what is this lovely example of modern American art? Why it's not American art at all, but Mexico's contribution to it.

Marsh took this lovely painting I purchased at Rock N Roll Heaven to last weekend's Annual Class of 2008 Christmas Party. No, everyone doesn't call it the AC of 2008 CP, just me. I mean, you can't call it the Junior Class Christmas Party every year, can you?

"Scrooge knew he was dead? Of course he did. How could it be otherwise? Scrooge and he were partners for I don't know how many years. Scrooge was his sole executor, his sole administrator, his sole assign, his sole residuary legatee, his sole friend, and sole mourner. And even Scrooge was not so dreadfully cut up by the sad event, but that he was an excellent man of business on the very day of the funeral, and solemnised it with an undoubted bargain."

Marsh says it was a fabulous party held at his friend Brad's house (another member of 'the axis of evil', future blog fodder) and someone who has always been interested in whatever you are doing there in the sand box. We love Bradley. Anyway, there was singing and dancing, foosball and ping pong, eating, drinking and making merry. Furthermore, your brother says he would move in anytime should the invitation come.

"The mention of Marley's funeral brings me back to the point I started from. There is no doubt that Marley was dead. This must be distinctly understood, or nothing wonderful can come of the story I am going to relate. If we were not perfectly convinced that Hamlet's Father died before the play began, there would be nothing more remarkable in his taking a stroll at night, in an easterly wind, upon his own ramparts, than there would be in any other middle-aged gentleman rashly turning out after dark in a breezy spot -- say Saint Paul's Churchyard for instance -- literally to astonish his son's weak mind."

So why a black velvet Elvis? Why a black velvet anything? I am so glad you asked. Black velvet paintings can be traced to ancient Kashmir (India). Originally religious in nature, Marco Polo introduced the West to this art form. Some of these early works still hang in the Vatican, though I didn't see any when we were there and I don't think you saw any either. The modern era of velvet art began in the 1950s as a post-war generation of Americans found themselves with too much money in their pockets and not enough sense in their heads.

Velvet Art was what most Americans want ~ something in neon colors pleasing to the touch you can show off to the neighbors. By the early 1960s, what had been a novelty sold in few stores and produced essentially on demand had become a legitimate business with several factory-style sweatshops being operated in the larger border towns in Mexico. Where the first velvet paintings had been of nature scenes and animals, now celebrities, weeping children and clowns quickly surged into the forefront of velvet style. The work was done almost exclusively on black velvet, all the better to emphasize the heavy lint buildup separating velvet paintings from lesser forms of artwork.

"Scrooge never painted out Old Marley's name. There it stood, years afterwards, above the ware-house door: Scrooge and Marley. The firm was known as Scrooge and Marley. Sometimes people new to the business called Scrooge Scrooge, and sometimes Marley, but he answered to both names. It was all the same to him."

As the sixties rolled on, velvet crept into every corner of American domesticity. Mattel Toys went so far as to manufacture a velvet paint-by-numbers kit for children. Advertisement suggested to parents this kit would ‘expose children to culture. Stranger still, among other cultural icons given to Nikita Khrushchev during his visit to the United States in 1961, was a velvet portrait of the Soviet leader standing in front of a giant hammer and sickle. In spite of this, the cold war went on for another twenty eight years.

"Oh! But he was a tight-fisted hand at the grindstone, Scrooge! a squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner! Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice. A frosty rime was on his head, and on his eyebrows, and his wiry chin. He carried his own low temperature always about with him; he iced his office in the dog-days; and didn't thaw it one degree at Christmas."

In early seventies, American taste began to shift. After man had been to the moon, velvet paintings just didn’t seem so out-of-this-world. While you could still get them in Mexico, they were surpassed in popularity by ceramic figurines and macramé. By 1975 your grandparents probably still had one in their basement, but velvet paintings were strictly garage sale fodder for most families.

"External heat and cold had little influence on Scrooge. No warmth could warm, no wintry weather chill him. No wind that blew was bitterer than he, no falling snow was more intent upon its purpose, no pelting rain less open to entreaty. Foul weather didn't know where to have him. The heaviest rain, and snow, and hail, and sleet, could boast of the advantage over him in only one respect. They often came down handsomely, and Scrooge never did."

Curiously, the most enduring velvet icon had only just begun production. While most people associate Elvis with the velvet medium, it wasn’t until the mid-seventies Graceland began selling the now infamous portraits, well after velvet’s heyday. The King (always a cultural savant) was given a velvet portrait of himself in his jumpsuit glory and purportedly saw to it replicas became officially licensed Elvis paraphernalia. Thus the last regular American manufacture of velvet portraiture took place in Tennessee, continuing until several years after Elvis’ 1977 death.

"Nobody ever stopped him in the street to say, with gladsome looks, "My dear Scrooge, how are you. When will you come to see me.'' No beggars implored him to bestow a trifle, no children asked him what it was o'clock, no man or woman ever once in all his life inquired the way to such and such a place, of Scrooge. Even the blindmen's dogs appeared to know him; and when they saw him coming on, would tug their owners into doorways and up courts; and then would wag their tails as though they said, "No eye at all is better than an evil eye, dark master! '' But what did Scrooge care! It was the very thing he liked. To edge his way along the crowded paths of life, warning all human sympathy to keep its distance, was what the knowing ones call nuts to Scrooge."

Unfortunately, the days of velvet wine and velvet roses are for the most part over. Although you can find a few stores in Tijuana doing custom velvet work — and believe you me nothing is cooler than having a velvet painting of yourself hanging in the bedroom — the mass produced “art” of yesteryear is nowhere to be found for commercial sale.

"Once upon a time -- of all the good days in the year, on Christmas Eve -- old Scrooge sat busy in his counting-house. It was cold, bleak, biting weather: foggy withal: and he could hear the people in the court outside, go wheezing up and down, beating their hands upon their breasts, and stamping their feet upon the pavement stones to warm them. The city clocks had only just gone three, but it was quite dark already: it had not been light all day: and candles were flaring in the windows of the neighbouring offices, like ruddy smears upon the palpable brown air. The fog came pouring in at every chink and keyhole, and was so dense without, that although the court was of the narrowest, the houses opposite were mere phantoms. To see the dingy cloud come drooping down, obscuring everything, one might have thought that Nature lived hard by, and was brewing on a large scale."

Any thrift store worth its grime will have one or two behind the macramé owls, but gone are the days of hundreds of velvet paintings being hawked to drunken tourists who don’t have a clue. To the surprise of very few, the fickle favor of the art world has given velvet the cold shoulder, to be replaced in America’s living room by other, less touchable, forms of art.

"The door of Scrooge's counting-house was open that he might keep his eye upon his clerk, who in a dismal little cell beyond, a sort of tank, was copying letters. Scrooge had a very small fire, but the clerk's fire was so very much smaller that it looked like one coal. But he couldn't replenish it, for Scrooge kept the coal-box in his own room; and so surely as the clerk came in with the shovel, the master predicted that it would be necessary for them to part. Wherefore the clerk put on his white comforter, and tried to warm himself at the candle; in which effort, not being a man of a strong imagination, he failed."

"A merry Christmas, uncle! God save you!'' cried a cheerful voice. It was the voice of Scrooge's nephew, who came upon him so quickly that this was the first intimation he had of his approach.

"Bah!'' said Scrooge, "Humbug!''

What Scrooge really desired for Christmas was black velvet art and a foosball table.

Black Velvet Information from Peter Geiberger

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