The Enquiring Mind

Joey Veltkamp takes new media and the Seattle
arts scene to a friendlier level.

“No one has ever asked me that question, so I might as well be specific.”
— Roy McMakin

Photo by Mike Wilkes

If you go to art openings in Seattle, you know Joey Veltkamp. Not “know him” in the celebrity sense that makes you stare from across the room and whisper to your friend, “That’s Joey Veltkamp!” Instead, you’re likely to stroll right across the gallery and give him a hug.

Around six feet tall and sporting a burly beard and an indomitably cheerful demeanor, the thirty-seven-year-old works to represent everything the Seattle arts community — in his eyes — should be: open-minded and inclusive. Why? He offers up the same reasoning that he has applied to his more recent paintings, Warhol-esque couplings of birds, cows and horses: a simple, childlike desire for “everyone to get along.”

Veltkamp is relatively new to the art world. Ten years ago, a boss he hated randomly gave him a holiday gift card to Seattle Art Supply. “It was the closest store to the office at that time; I didn’t have any artistic inclinations. But I thought, ‘I guess I can buy some frames with it.’ I ended up buying a beginning oil kit. It’s funny. Something born of corporate drudgery ended up changing my whole life.”

And while he claims his first painting was “horrible” (a portrait you wouldn’t guess was supposed to be Elijah Wood), he found the right support to continue developing his craft. “A mother’s love gives you so much confidence,” he says. “She still has it framed in her house.”

Now, Veltkamp’s creative prowess is in high demand: he’s an artist-in-residence at Seattle University, he’s collaborating with the folks at One Pot on a new book project, and he has curated art shows and created posters for the hip Cupcake Royale store on Capitol Hill.

Life wasn’t always brimming with opportunity. Around two years ago, in the midst of a depressing Seattle winter, Veltkamp started a blog meant to highlight for himself the positive activity and friendships he was engaged in. If he went to a good party or an interesting gallery opening, he’d blog about it. Steadily, the personal diary evolved into what he now calls “Best Of,” a more outwardly focused survey of arts, food and other pieces of culture that speak to him, including candid interviews with local artists whose work piques his curiosity or aligns with his own creative pursuits. Reading through the interviews online, it became apparent that accumulating in these casual chats about process and inspiration was a new way of experiencing visual art. It was not limited to the social breadlines at openings, nor the abbreviated glimpses offered by critics. Here was a person seeing work that caught his eye and chasing after a greater understanding of it for his own edification, with no credentials beyond curiosity and the savvy it takes to launch a Blogger account. City Arts sat down with Joey to talk about his art and tore some pages out of his book, so to speak, to highlight how his attitude is affected by and reflected in the artists he loves. — Bond Huberman

On autobiography.

Joey Veltkamp: My dad raised cattle growing up, and my other dad really liked to hunt. I just found out that my birth father is a horse wrangler for Hollywood movies. It’s funny; doesn’t matter if the little gay kid wants to run away from Montana — there’s something going on there.

Gala Bent: The work may be at a smaller scale…because of the pragmatics of getting to the studio with a new [baby], but I haven’t stopped so far with the arrival of either of my other sons. Drawing provides a welcome respite from the cycles of early child care, and now my older kids are willing to draw alongside me!

Dawn Cerny, “This is never going to end.”

Dawn Cerny: I am still looking at death and cool and drugs…while not being/doing any of them. I am learning to say no more and let go of disappointing people. I am trying to eat less candy. (I just lied about that one…)

Troy Gua: Star Wars had a huge impact on me. Still does.

Dawn Cerny: I think for some time I have been hiding behind history to tell very personal stories that I didn’t know how to articulate in my own way.

Emily Pothast: I have always been interested in religion and spirituality, but my personal relationship with what I call mysticism stems directly from the experience of having both of my parents killed by a drunk driver. I was really close to my parents, especially my mom, and it nearly destroyed me.

Brad Woodfin, Sheep, 24 x 30 inches, oil on canvas

Brad Woodfin: I didn’t want to be a minimalist or an abstract painter. I wanted to paint like the painters I love.

Roy McMakin: Perhaps what you are calling sentimental, I see more as longing. Which is a very hard thing to stare down.

Gus Harper: Well, people have told me that I remind them of those two, but Andy had a thick shock of silver hair and Georgia had a vagina. I don’t have either.

On “How come?”

Joey Veltkamp: I think there’s some point in your childhood that becomes your last perfect moment before you realize — oh, it’s not this whole world I thought it was. And so you go back to try to re-create that last moment.

Drew Daly: It’s really difficult to talk about work before it has been made, shown and considered without sounding wildly random.

Eric Elliott: When I start to think about why I should paint one object over another the decision seems absurd, but then again I have to paint something.

Claire Cowie, Peacock (detail)

Claire Cowie: I don’t know why yet, actually, but I’m doing it consciously and trying to figure it out.

Kimberly Trowbridge: Yes, size is crucial. It is intimately, inseparably linked to meaning. How the canvas, the container, is situated in the world as an object sets up specific questions. For me, it is a stage, and I enter it with an almost 1-1 relationship with my own body. The larger the canvas, the bigger the set and the possible inclusion of a larger cast.

Drew Daly: The piece isn’t something I decide to construct; it is something that results from sort of an experiment.

Roy McMakin: I really, really, really like furniture. Furniture is all about humanness, legs, arms, chests, feet, handles, knobs. All this humanness without the person. I keep thinking I’m going to figure out why I like it so much, but I never seem to. I suppose this is why I am not a designer; I am trying to make furniture do something else for me.

Claire Cowie: Uh…is it wrong to say that it’s because I go to the zoo all the time now that I have a kid? I am amazed at all the drama and personality with the animals. I love the peacocks running loose all over the zoo, like squirrels. But they are so grand and really unbelievable. It doesn’t seem quite right. They act almost indignant about having to be at such a low-class party, and they are constantly looking for the way out.

Gala Bent, Everything Seems to be Coming Together, graphite and gouache on paper, 35 x 48 inches, 2009

Gala Bent: Without being a proper philosopher, they are my own way of thinking about epistemology.

Brad Woodfin: Irony has become the most boring thing in the world to me.

Dawn Cerny: I think my work is funny, but I am never sure why other people see my work as more funny than it is depressing. Much of the time I am insinuate [sic] a punch-line and people must feel that and laugh. I try to be very honest with my own failures (personal and artist), and that is always good for a laugh. I do use humor but it is always jokes based upon human frailty and sadness — they are only jokes people who have known deep sadness can laugh at. I have a deep love for people and tragedy and I think this must mean deep down that everything I make has that love too. (I am Oprah.)

Matthew Offenbacher: I’ve been thinking a lot about community, vulnerability and power and how to celebrate special places.

Matthew Offenbacher, abstract painting, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 48 inches, 2005

Roy McMakin: What I have come to believe is that the goal is to show love within the requirements of things being visible. I think that is the stuff we want to look at, regardless of when it was made.

Eric Elliott: I guess I want to show that a person is the world around them, that they emerge from it and dissolve back into it.

Troy Gua: I want my work to etch itself into the viewers’ minds, to be stamped onto their brains. Forever. Does that sound too aggressive? Oh well.

Dan Webb: My own work in the show consists of pieces that are draped or covered or obfuscated in some way, hiding from view what the actual subject of the piece is. Of course, the draping and obfuscating is either carved or rendered in leather, making it impossible to remove the covering and see what’s going on underneath. The reason for this was simply to highlight the idea that if there is a meaning to any work of art, it is a thing that must be inferred by the participation of the viewer.

Roy McMakin: What do you do with a chest if the drawers don’t work? I think the only answer is to think about it.

On process.

Joey Veltkamp: I spend a lot of time at home, re-watching Jesus Christ Superstar or some other weird movie — and just drawing. After a while, you know, you exhaust all the subjects; I’ll literally just start drawing everything in my apartment. It becomes kind of like a diary — an interesting way of being able to document things, without being too personal. No one wants to hear, you know, “um, Dear Diary.”

Augustus Harper, Super cone, oil on canvas, 18 x 36 inches

Gus Harper: I thought I was being clever, but now I realize of course that a ton of people have done this sort of thing. Oh well. I guess if you are doing something that has already been done, then all you can do is try to do it well.

Emily Pothast: I love intense, meticulous craftsmanship.

Eric Elliott: I think most people are surprised that I work with only four colors.

Drew Daly: I sanded a chair down until I couldn’t sand any longer if the chair was to remain able to stand. When I began, I thought I’d sand the chair to play with the idea of time and erosion, essentially erasing an object. There was no way for me to know what I would end up with. I just kept sanding and sanding and finally had to stop. I actually thought the thing was sort of ugly because of the tedious nature of the process. It took a long time for me to see beyond that and recognize how the piece appeared.

Dawn Cerny: Before I start any show I spend a lot of time at the University of Washington library doing research and writing, and I walk around the campus processing things. Then when it comes to making things I put all of that esoteric stuff aside and make a crapload of stuff. When it is time to edit the show I trade my beret for my mortarboard.

Kimberly Towbridge, Arcadia, 2009, oil on canvas, 168 x 90 inches

Kimberly Trowbridge: All of the decisions I am making are based on the purely visual elements — color, shape, movement, enclosure. It is ahead of me. It knows something I don’t yet know. And the way I prepare and listen for this message is to pay acute attention to color relationships — it is a kind of call and response.

Gretchen Bennett: Part of my process is learning new materials and technology in order to move the work forward, learning new methods as I go.

Scott Foldesi: I sometimes take my own photographs, but I have been relying more on finding images from other sources, usually the Internet. That means a huge amount of time spent searching images on the computer and saving anything that has a composition, location or object that I respond to. A large majority of images never get used, but I often sift through them to find new ideas. It’s very impractical and not time efficient.

Scott Foldesi, Bench, 2008, 48 x 40 inches, oil on canvas

Drew Daly: As much as I enjoy where the piece ended up I still don’t think it’s beautiful, it’s just the visual representation of an equation or system.

Dawn Cerny: I was so tired at the end of 2006 I just sat down and cried.

On repurposing.

Joey Veltkamp: Domestic burliness is a term I got from Regina Hackett; it’s about using subjects that are more feminine and somehow naturalizing them. Someone said [about my work] sometime, these aren’t the horses or cows from nature — these are the cows from cookie jars.

Gretchen Bennett: Reading and reconfiguring is not new, I’m just noticing it, using it to my own ends.

Emily Pothast: Conceptually, it’s all about tearing things apart and rebuilding them.

Roy McMakin: I guess by doing something as simple as making it not function as a chair (or a chest) I have moved the conversation from design to art.

Scott Foldesi: A person can go to a particular chain store or strip mall in one state and basically have the same experience in another state. That’s one of the reasons I like to use images taken from various sources. It doesn’t matter if I took the photograph because visually it is essentially the same as what I have experienced. I suppose that’s some type of utopia for some developers and big chain retailers.

Gretchen Bennett: I’ve been thinking of things in very aural and lateral terms, wanting to work more and more the way musicians and writers work. I’ve been taking piano lessons from Brant Campbell (of Celebrity Orphans), in order to explore other recording artists’ approach to creative output. I’m focusing on those artists, like Cat Power, Kurt Cobain and Gus Van Sant, who at times say what I want to say. By repeating them in specific ways, through drawings and recording, I am learning about structure, and I think this process of recitation and repetition is leading me to original creation, to output of my own in new ways.

Gretchen Bennet, Dying Fawn

Drew Daly: I reform the object using the original material’s characteristics, revealing something that has always been there.

Gala Bent: I would mostly draw from books about animal identification, and I was struck by the beautiful unity and variety between hair and feather structure as it rounded corners and haunches and made its way down necks and sprouted into tails (et cetera). When I looked around me at human hair patterns, there was a clear link to these swirling currents and reactive lines, but also a very specific human version that is connected to loads of other cultural history and ideas. In our realm, we enter into braids and bobby pins and haircuts and all sorts of other goofy and profound things in order to draw attention to our personalities and ideas about ourselves.

Emily Pothast: I prefer to think of myself as the “Michael Jordan of the golf world” of the art world.

On community.

Joey Veltkamp: There’s not many arts blogs in town that foster a lot of dialogue. In comments sections there’s a lot of “this sucks” or “eat shit!” Sometimes I throw on a nice comment just to break it up a little. I mean, come on people! I wanted a platform where artists can talk about their concerns or what they’re thinking. I love reviews, but they rarely interview artists. Someone called me out one time for not being critical. And I just thought, there’s plenty of voices that are negative. I want to keep it positive. And in some way, I guess, it’s a kind of criticism by omission.

Emily Pothast, Axis Mundi, collage and colored pencil on paper, 13.5 x 15.625 inches, 2008

Emily Pothast: There’s nothing like working collaboratively to help keep your ego in check.

Roy McMakin: I think every artist might feel in greater or lesser degree that they aren’t acknowledged enough; I think it is an occupational hazard. But I also think there is a really complicated issue involved, which is what I will call the “carrying capacity” for artists within a community. I don’t think it is possible for Seattle to celebrate all of the artists who live here.

Gretchen Bennett: My collaborations with other artists, including you [Veltkamp], have led me to new ways of expressing myself.

Dawn Cerny: I think this is why a lot of musicians start side projects — so they can stretch their legs a little in a new direction without having to quit the band.

Eric Elliott: I want to play with some different ways of applying paint, and what better way to do that than to have other people who do just that come into my studio and make some art with me?

Matthew Offenbacher: There are so many smart people and good conversations going on, in studios and bars and coffee shops. I wanted to try to get some of it down on paper. My hope is that La Especial Norte can become a place to hone some of these ideas, and then project them back out into the world, to stimulate more conversation between artists, and also help guide the public conversation about the meaning of our art.

Joey Veltkamp: I really like genuine criticism; it’s helped me, not having had any training. If I didn’t have criticism from friends or people I trust, I’d still be making really weird portraits of Elijah Wood. [laughs] Thank God, we’re beyond that.


Joey Veltkamp interview and arrangement of quotes by Bond Huberman. All quotes from artists other than Joey Veltkamp excerpted from interviews published on Roy McMakin interview originally published in La Especial Norte 3, edited by Matthew Offenbacher.