Quilts wrap us in feelings of home, tradition and handcrafted coziness. In Joey Veltkamp’s hands, quilts also offer delightful, eccentric, sometimes melancholic references to the Pacific Northwest, pop culture and his identity as a gay man.
“SPIRIT!” — a big, exuberant solo show of quilts, drawings and installations at the Bellevue Arts Museum — celebrates the cheerful visuals, layered allusions and mystical inquiries of this self-described queer folk artist who is beloved in the local art community.
A recent walk-through with Veltkamp; his husband, Ben Gannon, who is also an artist; and BAM curator Lane Eagles was like being part of a sewing circle, sharing company while piecing together stories.
Veltkamp said that, even as his work can carry sad undertones, he wanted to create a hopeful mood with this show, which was largely organized during the COVID-19 pandemic. It serves as a midcareer retrospective for the 50-year-old artist, although Veltkamp didn’t really “find his artistic voice,” as he puts it, until he was in his early 40s.
The oldest piece in the exhibition is a 1978 “Star Wars” quilt, made by his aunt for 8-year-old Joey. Veltkamp says he was always drawn to things considered soft and feminine and the familial tradition of quilt-making informed his later decision to take up the form.
But before he started making quilts, he was drawing them, a practice he continues today. The BAM exhibition pairs several neatly hung quilts with their corresponding drawings that render the quilts as jumbled piles, as if recently cast off from a warm body.
Themes of comfort and domesticity thread throughout the show and there are quite a few new pieces created at Veltkamp and Gannon’s home in Bremerton. “Berry Quilt” was finished just this year; its seemingly simple list of local berries is destined to become a Veltkamp classic.
Like the changeable-letter roadside signs and menu boards he often nods to, the messages of Veltkamp’s quilts are immediately accessible. But there are remnants of personal and cultural histories stitched in. “Berry Quilt” is a partial list of the edible plants tended by Veltkamp and Gannon — a marker of the home they’ve created and care for together.
“Berry Quilt” is a companion piece to “PANTRY,” an art installation of jams and jellies made by the couple. The project began amid concerns over increased homophobia and loss of rights stirred up by the 2016 election of Donald Trump. This fearful backstory isn’t evident in the installation of jewel-like jars on a charming shelf. We’re given, instead, an enchanting vision of self-sufficient cottage life 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, not coincidentally, created near the beginning of their relationship. But, as always, the quilt, titled “It Is Happening Again,” bears additional stories. Fans of David Lynch’s TV series “Twin Peaks” will recognize that phrase, along with multiple other references to the cult classic.
Owls, for example, are a shared Lynchian and Veltkampian motif, symbolizing watchfulness, spirituality and changeability. As the Giant says to Agent Cooper in “Twin Peaks,” “The owls are not what they seem.”
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 the messy bits. Gazing up at the large-scale quilt titled “The Great Northwest III,” we see scrap fabric letters spell out Northwesty staples like “rain” and “coffee.” But wait, there’s also “ennui,” “UFOs” and “serial killers.”
Veltkamp points to the khaki pocket included in “The Great Northwest III,” explaining that pockets appear often in his work to suggest the need for secrecy felt by so many people in the LGBTQ+ community.
The exhibition is intentionally gay-friendly and inclusive, from the jubilantly fringed “WELCOME” sign near the entrance to the courtyard of lively rainbow-colored pennants and wind catchers. Rainbows and pride colors are everywhere.
The flags and banners also playfully reflect the title of the exhibition, “SPIRIT!,” evoking associations with gay rights marches, pep rallies, picnics and church services.
Flags, quilts, bedspreads and banners — these are not your typical fine art forms. Veltkamp revels in the crossover, even referring to his quilts as “soft paintings.” He embraces the quilt form’s legacy of community activism, folk art and feminine domesticity 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. The Black women quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, carry on practices of piecing together old clothes and found fabrics in ways that are both traditional and innovative.
For Veltkamp, the bits of found and personally used fabric (he often uses his and Gannon’s old clothes) blend 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, craving community, while still needing the comfort of home, Veltkamp’s art is exactly what we need right now. Veltkamp shows us the possibilities of transformation through connection, everyday joy and a little bit of campy weirdness.
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