Joey Veltkamp quilts softly to make a hard point.
Lately Joey Veltkamp has been lying low, sewing nonstop in his Eastlake studio for the past year. The studio, previously perfumed with turpentine and bouquets of drying oil paint, is now piled with sewing machines, thread and bins of fabric scraps.
This is the artist who for six years maintained one of Seattle’s widest-read art blogs (“Best Of”), hosted innumerable community-building artist salons and events and was single-handedly responsible for melting a good portion of Seattle’s art-scene freeze.
The self-taught Veltkamp is also known for his prolific paintings and drawings, populated by a totemic menagerie of bears, stallions and ponies and mythological Americana like the owls from Twin Peaks or big-hearted Grizzly Adams. Some of his work you may have seen on the street, like the blown-up versions of his “Diary Drawings” on Sound Transit Art Program’s Red Wall. These heavily crosshatched ink drawings chronicle the passage of time marked by an ever-shifting jumble of objects that clutter the artist’s coffee table. Crushed cans of Pabst, oozing paint tubes, matchbooks, lucky rabbit’s feet, condoms and cleaning supplies suggest all kinds of domestic narratives in miniature.
With works like these, Veltkamp blurs the line between personal iconography, public life and politics. Veltkamp’s latest work at ArtsWest Playhouse and Gallery also navigates that line, perhaps with more punch than ever—but this time Veltkamp unfurls 20 quilts and handmade flags for this exhibit, titled This is not a protest. It’s a celebration!
The flags are splashed with rainbows, zigzagged with strips of neon and plaid. Despite a homespun playfulness particular to Veltkamp, each piece nods to feminism, queer politics, patriarchy or death—even the one that references the Carpenters. One flag is stitched with a colorful triad of Pussy Riot masks. Another pays homage to THEESatisfaction’s celebration of “Black Weirdos” and the double entendre of “queen” in black and gay culture. The flag is embroidered with the lyric Whatever you do, don’t funk with my groove.
Veltkamp first took up needle and thread two summers ago. In this case, the medium was the message.
“It was a spontaneous transition, born out of sadness while scratching an itch for communal grieving,” he says. “Two things we all share: This life is beautiful. But this life is hard.”
Growing up gay in small-town Montana and later in Spokane, Veltkamp seldom found himself embraced by community. To mourn, but to be joyfully defiant, is ingrained. To embrace community through his art—and literally, with the comfort of a quilt—is all important.
“As a gay man in my early 40s, it’s impossible for me to underestimate the importance of the AIDS Memorial Quilt and its personal impact on my younger self,” Veltkamp says. “I love that it’s a medium that has historically been very supportive of women and people of color. There’s a softness to fabric that mirrors my personal interests at this point in my life. Quilting was a rebellion against painting, and by extension, the patriarchy. It was a way of aligning myself with women, a show of solidarity.”
Each piece hanging in the show is two-sided. Veltkamp likes to think of it as an A-side and a B-side.
“I love the duality, allowing for more than one answer. It reminds me of Whitman’s Song of Myself. ‘Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.’”
This is not a protest. It’s a celebration! is showing at ArtsWest Gallery from April 17 through June 7.