Review of the exhibition
Duvets envelop us in a sense of home, tradition and handcrafted comfort. In the hands of Joey Veltkamp, the quilts also offer delightful, quirky, sometimes melancholic references to the Pacific Northwest, pop culture, and his identity as a gay man.
“SPIRIT!” – a large, exuberant solo exhibition of quilts, drawings and installations at the Bellevue Arts Museum – celebrates the joyful visuals, layered allusions and mystical investigations of this self-proclaimed queer folk artist who is beloved in the local art community.
A recent visit with Veltkamp, her husband, Ben Gannon, who is also an artist, and BAM Lane Eagles curator was like being part of a sewing circle, sharing company while piecing together stories.
Veltkamp said that while his work can have sad undertones, he wanted to create a hopeful vibe with this show, which was staged extensively during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a mid-career retrospective for the 50-year-old artist, although Veltkamp didn’t quite “find his artistic voice”, as he puts it, until he was at the start. of quarantine.
The oldest piece in the exhibit is a 1978 Star Wars quilt, made by her aunt for 8-year-old Joey. Veltkamp says he was always drawn to things considered soft and feminine, and that the family tradition of quilt making informed his later decision to take the form.
But before he started making quilts, he sketched them, a practice he continues today. The BAM exhibit combines several neatly hung quilts with their corresponding designs that make the quilts look like jumbled piles, as if they’ve just been thrown from a warm body.
Themes of comfort and domestic life are present throughout the show and there are quite a few new pieces created at Veltkamp and Gannon in Bremerton. “Berry Quilt” was completed this year; its seemingly simple list of local berries is destined to become a Veltkamp classic.
Like the variable-letter road signs and menu boards he often nods to, the messages in Veltkamp’s quilts are immediately accessible. But there are remnants of personal and cultural stories stitched together. “Berry Quilt” is a partial list of edible plants maintained by Veltkamp and Gannon – a marker of the home they created and maintained together.
“Berry Quilt” is a complementary piece to “PANTRY”, an art installation of jams and jellies made by the couple. The project began amid concerns over rising homophobia and loss of rights following the election of Donald Trump in 2016. This chilling story is not evident in the installation of mason jars. jewelry on a charming shelf. Instead, we’re given an enchanting view of self-sufficient cottage living and what they call the “jam economy” of trading homemade goods with friends and neighbors.
Also on display is the huge quilt from their bed at home, which was created, not coincidentally, at the start of their relationship. But, as always, the quilt, titled “It’s Still Happening,” carries additional stories. Fans of David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” TV series will recognize this phrase, along with many other references to the cult classic.
Owls, for example, are a shared Lynchian and Veltkampian motif, symbolizing alertness, spirituality, and the capacity for change. As the Giant tells Agent Cooper in “Twin Peaks,” “Owls aren’t what they seem.”
The features of the Pacific Northwest are touchstones for Veltkamp, who has lived here – and loved living here – for most of his adult life. But love, for Veltkamp, doesn’t mean glossing over messy details. Looking at the large-scale quilt titled “The Great Northwest III,” we see fabric scrap letters spell out Northwest staples like “rain” and “coffee.” But wait, there’s also “boredom”, “UFOs” and “serial killers”.
Veltkamp points to the khaki pocket included in “The Great Northwest III,” explaining that pockets often appear in his work to suggest the need for secrecy felt by so many in the LGBTQ+ community.
The exhibit is intentionally gay-friendly and inclusive, from the jubilantly fringed “WELCOME” sign near the courtyard entrance to the animated rainbow-colored pennants and windcatchers. Rainbows and PRIDE colors are everywhere.
The flags and banners also playfully reflect the exhibit’s title, “SPIRIT!”, evoking associations with gay rights marches, pep rallies, picnics and church services.
Flags, quilts, bedspreads and banners – these are not your typical art forms. Veltkamp revels in the crossover, even calling his quilts “soft paintings.” It embraces the legacy of community activism, folk art, and female domesticity of the quilt form and acknowledges the influence and importance of quilting from other communities.
Seeing the Gee’s Bend quilts was “liberating” for him, allowing him to play with expression, he said. Black women quilters in Gee’s Bend, Alabama practice assembling old clothes and finding fabrics in ways that are both traditional and innovative.
For Veltkamp, personally found and used pieces of fabric (he often uses his and Gannon’s old clothes) mix with found text and personally resonant phrases. Gannon calls this the “beautiful alchemy” of Veltkamp’s work and, indeed, there is something magical about this show.
As we emerge from pandemic self-isolation, in search of community, while still needing the comforts of home, Veltkamp’s art is just what we need right now. Veltkamp shows us the possibilities of transformation through connection, everyday joy and a bit of campy weirdness.