Joey Veltkamp is unfolding one of the largest quilts I’ve seen him make, meant to envelop not just one body but two. The largest patches are made from a friend’s red plaid lumberjack flannel; one pocket prominently, lovingly, placed near the top of the blanket. “... this is for love letters,” Joey explains as he pats the pocket and flattens out the quilt. I nearly die from the sweetness, the sincerity of the remark, and absolute romance of the thought that a quilt could be made to contain such a thing.
It fits to hear those words come from Joey’s lips. After all, his entire body of work is a love letter. Even when the work is about mundane objects, Veltkamp is reaching out from the heart to express something tangible about the emotions we’re feeling. In the truest sense, he is drawing from a long history of art made from love and nurture, creating objects with beauty and meaning as well as function and memory.
In 1987, a group of friends wanted to honor the multitude of deaths that AIDS had wreaked upon the gay community. Their response was to create a quilt memorializing the names of people who had died, and is known as The AIDS Memorial Quilt, founded by The NAMES Project Foundation. Born out of anguish, the NAMES Project has served as a monument to the catastrophic effect the disease had not only on an entire culture, but on individual lives. This project points at those lives and humanizes them. These were people, not numbers or statistics. The immediate personal impact of the disease was devastating to an entire culture. Through the act of sewing – a form of mending - and naming, the AIDS Memorial Quilt became an act of healing.
The spectre of the Memorial Quilt is real. Its purpose was to commemorate the ghosts of people we remember and heal those who remain. In 2011, Joey Veltkamp exhibited a collection of colorful, pinched clay ghost sculptures at SOIL Gallery in Seattle to document his own journey through sadness. Sweet, simple, and playful, they were small protagonists in a story about grief without a name or a place. They served as symbols of people – friends, old celebrities, fictional characters – but over time they became friendly, warm, and comforting fixtures. It is from these that a new body of work emerged, a series of drawings Veltkamp made based on the shape, color, and repetition of form inspired by piles of blankets. Like ghosts, blankets are imbued with the presence of a person. Unlike ghosts, they don’t hold the shape of the person beneath them. Still, they are altered by our interaction, carrying our scent when we’re gone. Blankets and quilts hold us when others can’t. They keep us warm. Soft, cozy, and sometimes fluffy; they are in the truest sense of the word, “comforters”.
It would be easy to assume that “craft” seems to take the pressure off an artist. Quilts don’t carry the weight of Western art history. They do carry the extensive history of craft-making, nurture, caretaking, and the art of women across cultures and across time. Perhaps the most famous among them are the startlingly Abstract Expressionist quilts made by the Women of Gee’s Bend. The work of these women from Alabama can be seen across modern art museums and galleries all over the US, something I’m certain those making them never imagined would happen. And why would anyone imagine it to happen? Textile arts are passed on through generations of women, and made intimately in small gatherings. Though they are not made for exhibition, they are a document of a culture. Quilts are a recording of moments in time. They are a portrait of the person for whom they are made. But the people making them remain invisible.
Quilt-making has long been relegated to the work of women confined to the home, who were expected to take care of their men and children and to some extent, each other. Historically, while men’s work is expressly tied to the notion of identity and recognition, women have laboured without any expectation of it. In these traditional heteronormative roles, men are celebrated for their work, and women are only noticed when it isn’t done. So what does it mean when a man takes on the work that is traditionally assigned to women? What about a gay man who allies himself with women? The question becomes one about narrative, who is describing it, and how it’s being told.
When a gay man takes on the feminine language and acts of women, he isn't able to stand in place of her but he potentially positions himself alongside her. Feminine gay men still benefit from their gender status, but culture will demote them – being femme, or like a woman, is not of value to the privileged in Western society. To say one is “like a girl” is to say they are weak, inferior, or less than. If the worst insult one man can hurl towards another is to identify him as “female”, then the gay male holds an identity as one who is male, but who like women, receives men; and who is then placed between. He can speak neither for men, nor for women. He has his own story of hardship, acceptance, gender roles, and identity.
Joey Veltkamp is creating a series of quilts and flags where color forms stories of identity through symbolism. Common themes of alienation or weirdness emerge, for example, in the way he uses neon, giving us a visual clue that there is something happening or about to happen. This use of color is a marker of uncanny Pacific Northwest energy, a sign of something strange or supernatural. Veltkamp loves to touch on the bizarre nature and mythology of this rainy, dark, and mystical region - our penchant for vampires, serial killers, and long dark winters creates a sort of Norse-like feeling of weirdness and the supernatural. The Northwest, a historically transient location in the furthermost corner of the lower 48 States, is a home to misfits, weirdos, and outcasts.
Veltkamp often points to these cultural references or people in his flags. Through them, he celebrates feminist, queer, and minority remembrances or slogans. “A Day Without Lesbians Is Like A Day Without Sunshine”, or pulls an uncanny quote from a Nirvana song that evokes the scratchy voice of Kurt Cobain screaming “No Recess”. Or they cite a ballad of strength such Alicia Keys’ “That Girl is On Fire”. Each of these embody a duality which reflects the history of the music they reference. Like old 45s, the flags have “A sides” and “B sides”, often containing two different texts or an image and a text that correspond with one another.
The flags feel celebratory but they are also a call to attention. They are evocative of banners carried by activists during a march, containing short but memorable words to carry home and not forget. But rather than protest, they serve as an homage to the heroes in his life, people who are in his words folks who create space. And in fact, while Veltkamp isn’t ordinarily identified as an activist artist, he has a history of doing just such a thing in his artistic practice: he creates space. Whether that’s been through his blog ‘Best Of’, using his studio residency at Seattle University for a series of workshops taught by artists in the Seattle community, or creating the Seattle Women’s Convention at the Hedreen Gallery (again, at Seattle University); this is precisely what Joey’s activism looks like. He clears the stage for others to speak, or just be.
It would be easy to describe Veltkamp’s work as pop art, not only because of its references but because of its colorful iconography. But playing with both subject matter and object-ness, Veltkamp’s works describe a lineage that traces back to the work of Jasper Johns - a gay male artist (his lover was Robert Rauschenberg) who treated the duality of his works with a distinct philosophy that they could be all things at once, both subject and object; formal composition and material. He defied the macho-ism of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries, whose work was more like a stamp of their personality, and instead pursued conveying symbols outside of their meaning. Johns’ best examples of painting as object, separate from symbol, are his series of flag paintings or targets. Both toyed with our attachment to the symbol while declaring their presence as formal constructions. The game is in our attention to the symbol, as well as its life as an independent work of art. Johns once said:
Sometimes I see it and then paint it. Other times I paint it and then see it. Both are impure situations, and I prefer neither. At every point in nature there is something to see. My work contains similar possibilities for the changing focus of the eye.
This points back to Veltkamp’s still lifes (the diary drawings) and his blanket series, which are collections of things demanding to be viewed out of context as a collection of marks on paper. He draws them because he sees them; he sees them, therefore he draws them.
The transition from soft quilts into draughtsmanship formalizes them. They recall Veltkamp’s diary drawings which described his life and the lives of those he knew, giving weight and meaning to mundanity, a pile we might not otherwise give attention to. He has given composition to the clutter, and order to chaos. These objects alone have no significance, but when portrayed together they tell a compelling story, if not a biography. In much the same way, blankets are blankets until viewed through another lens. What is ordinary changes simply because we are looking. And when we are looking, we begin to see the many different sides of a thing, and what that thing can be.
Jasper Johns spoke frequently to the duality in his work. He said:
I made the flags and targets to open men’s eyes … (they) were both things - which are seen and not looked at - examined.
We expect artists to exist in a dynamic, rather than a static state. We expect them to respond to their environment and a constant stream of input and information. While some collectors or critics might fear a lack of consistency in the work, the continuity actually lies within the artist’s underlying philosophy. The artist him/her/self is the binding thread. Therefore consistency is an inevitability. Artists must allow themselves duality and contradiction - I am this, I am not this, I am these things. It speaks to their unspeakable compulsion to make things, whatever those things may be, whether tangible, idea-based versus object-based, curatorial, and so on.
True to the content of love letters, Joey Veltkamp’s duality is sweet, nostalgic, and celebratory. Like a rush of blood to the head we are dizzy with color, joy, and happiness. Of course there is context, meaning, and a story Veltkamp wants to tell us, but he doesn’t tell it for us. His view is only a window into a world he is willing to share and we are allowed to move through it and place ourselves within it. He has created a space for us.
The best art lives and moves with us, wherever we go. We carry it, like a pocket full of love letters.