Fiber/multimedia artist Joey Veltkamp explores the duality of light and darkness inherent in both the Pacific Northwest and gay culture in his exhibit “SPIRIT!,” on view at the Bellevue Arts Museum. While some of his cheerful and colorful pieces can be enjoyed purely on a visual level, many are dense with symbolism personal to Veltkamp and tinged with darker undertones.
Veltkamp, who has an art studio in Bremerton, understands this area. Like its weather — a shifting mosaic of rain, wind and occasional sun — Pacific Northwest culture contains multitudes. This is perfectly captured in “The Great Northwest III,” a wall-hanging fabric list Veltkamp constructed in 2021, pictured to the right. We are known in the Northwest for Subarus, puffer jackets and coffee, but don’t forget the pass(ive)-agg(ressive behavior), cults and serial killers (the letters for which are different sizes and fonts, resembling parts of a ransom note). The beauty of Washington’s nature is shown in other pieces by Veltkamp, including “Orcasland,” “Chelan Sunset” and “The Great Northwest II,” which are all painterly landscapes in textile form.
“Baker, Buckner, Blackstar…,” which has squares containing Veltkamp’s 15 favorite mountain peaks, takes a traditional quilt design and adds unusual elements. Rainbow snow crowns Mount Redoubt. Shirtless beefcake men cavort with butterflies. On the back of the quilt (Veltkamp calls it the B-side), Mount Tahoma (the indigenous name for Mount Rainier) is swarmed by with yellow circles representing UFOs.
Other quilts are of vintage signs recreated in cloth, like “Rucker Brothers Towing” and “Twin Pines,” which was inspired by a Cle Elum drive-in milkshake menu and evokes a glow of nostalgia. A green freeway sign aptly named “Bellevue Exit (520),” however, emits a slightly sinister vibe. Veltkamp passed the real sign on his way to work, but he also links freeways to serial killers. One possible link is Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, who picked up his victims — sex workers and runaways — along Highway 99.
Veltkamp’s sexual orientation informs much of his art, but he wants to include everyone in his vision. Crafted with beads, crystals and wires, “Suncatchers” hang above quilts displayed on beds. The suncatchers are intended as an offering to straight viewers: a chance for everyone to glimpse their own rainbow.
Rainbows first became linked with LGBTQ+ culture through fiber art; Gilbert Baker, an artist and drag performer, designed an eight-colored flag in 1978 for San Francisco’s Pride Parade. Nearly every piece of Veltkamp’s art includes a rainbow element, however small. “Welcome” and “Don’t Give Up!” use strong rainbow colors to encourage the insecure who have not yet found their place in the world. “Lunch at Ivar’s, 1997” has seagulls in hues not found in nature. “Orcasland” has a thin rainbow border, and, in “Spirit,” a dove holds a rainbow ribbon in its beak.
Though Veltkamp finds in his queerness a source of joy, there is also a flipside. He made “Spirit Board” in 2022 to honor the numerous lives tragically cut short by the AIDS epidemic. This piece mimics a ouija board. It includes the alphabet, the numbers zero through nine and the options “yes” and “no.” But the letters spelling out the title seem to fade and recede, like those who wasted away due to the disease, and two ghosts hover in front of a rainbow background. The words “hi” and “bye” remind the viewer that AIDS victims’ lives ended abruptly and far too early; Veltkamp wanted the art to be “a reminder that we will never forget you,” according to the artist statement that is presented with the quilt.
Some of the artist’s favored symbols are owls and butterflies. Owls are often associated with wisdom, knowledge, change, intuition and mystery. In some indigenous cultures, owl legends include death, transformation and rebirth. Butterflies also transform from one stage to another and have a brief life span.
Three quilts feature owls: “Let’s Rock,” “In the Still of the Night” and “It Is Happening Again.” Veltkamp sees owls as, among other things, watchers. “In the Still of the Night,” disembodied owl eyes pop throughout the quilt, in the shape of buttons sewn onto circular fabric pieces.
Veltkamp made “It Is Happening Again” in 2014, when he met his now husband Ben Gannon, and they have used it as an actual quilt. Veltkamp states that he likes the sustainable nature of quilts, and the quilts use denim, corduroy, floral, striped and plaid scraps of clothing worn by both men, formed into owls.
The more hidden, secret B-side of “It is Happening Again” contains a quote from the show it references: “In a town like Twin Peaks, no one is innocent.” Like the show “Twin Peaks,” much of Veltkamp’s art appears kitschy and humorous, but murky currents run below the surface. The museum recreated the Red Room from “Twin Peaks” to house Veltkamp’s sheer curtain installation inspired by the show. The space has red walls and the iconic chevron design on the floor. In “Twin Peaks,” this room is a place beyond time and space where spirits dwell, and Veltkamp’s work expresses this same feeling. Transparent curtains, each embroidered with a different set of eyes, hang and sway eerily from rods. Some eyes appear friendly, but one is just blank eye holes. There are eyes made from blue bandana material and also the colorless eyes of a doppelganger; on “Twin Peaks,” the malicious duplicate of a person or spirit can be recognized by fogged, white eyes (though Veltkamp’s version are also sparkly).
Veltkamp’s work takes many forms, from quilts to a collection of pseudo foods. In “Pantry,” a collaborative art piece that started in 2017 and is still ongoing, Veltkamp and Gannon can jams and jellies of all types. Gannon stated that they did it as a “response to feelings of anger and fear.”
The world can be a troubling place, as long-held rights are reversed, climate change and COVID-19 continue and mass shootings become a common occurrence. But “SPIRIT!” is an inspiration. Though Veltkamp acknowledges the darker side of life, the exhibit reminds viewers that the world can be an enjoyable and fun place and no matter where you look, seeing a rainbow is possible.
Andrea Kreidler is a writer based in Edmonds. She can be reached via email at [email protected].
Read more of the July 20-26, 2022 issue.