“I just finished it yesterday,” says Veltkamp as he arrives at the Bellevue Arts Museum. Standing near the loading dock, he sports a neon orange hoodie over a plaid shirt; gray socks peek out from his electric-blue Birkenstocks as he lifts the bag out of the car. The quilt, a fabric art piece that Veltkamp has stitched, sewed and patch-worked over the past few weeks, is among a few dozen of his self-titled “soft paintings” on view in SPIRIT!, opening at BAM this week (May 20-Oct. 23).
The show, a celebration of queerness, the Pacific Northwest, community and nostalgia, is Veltkamp’s first-ever solo museum exhibition — but given that he’s a successful gallery artist and 50 years old, SPIRIT! could also be considered his midcareer retrospective.
“I wanted to make a show that felt expansive and open,” he says. “It’s for everyone, whether you come in through the Northwest point of view, or you come into the queer or spirituality point of view.”
In the museum’s freight elevator, with the bagged quilt now on a rolling cart, I ask the exhibition designer if it’s unusual to have a piece of art arrive like this. “It’s not … museum standard,” they reply, “but I like it.”
Awaiting us when we step out of the elevator is a large quilt cascading down a white wall. It’s called “Great Northwest (?) III.” On horizontal bands in shades of grays and browns, Veltkamp has stitched hand-sized letters from cut fabric (much of it denim and plaid flannel) spelling out RAIN - ENNUI - EARTHQUAKE - SUBARUS - CULTS - GRUNGE - COFFEE … you get the point: It’s a Pacific Northwest smorgasbord. Near the bottom, letters in a ransom-note typeface spell SERIAL KILLERS, an amalgam of leftover letters from previous quilts (and an unfortunate truth about the region).
Veltkamp, gregarious and sunny, describes himself as a folk artist. Entirely self-taught, he didn’t start quilting until his early 40s. He had been painting and drawing for a while, but as the big 5-0 approached, so did — in his mind — death. He started thinking about the things he would leave behind. The idea of his mother or other loved ones being left with just his paintings struck him as cold. What if he could make something that was actually comforting? A painting you could sleep or snuggle with? (Some of Veltkamp’s earlier drawings, depicting quilts, are on view in the show.)
Growing up a gay, adopted, “chubby little bear kid” in Spokane wasn’t easy. Softness — and, by extension, the domestic, things historically deemed “feminine” — is something Veltkamp says he always gravitated toward. And, he told City Arts in 2014, seeing trauma transformed into the 1980s AIDS Memorial Quilt (which commemorates those lost to HIV/AIDS) left an indelible mark that helped inspire his turn to quilting.
For his quilts, Veltkamp often works with donated or second-hand fabrics. He usually doesn’t have to look very far: The plaid fabric in “Great Northwest (?) III” that became the word “grunge” came from one of his husband’s shirts. “This is a corduroy shirt of mine,” he says, pointing to a textile A-frame cabin between “SUBARUS” and “CULTS.” In the lower left-hand corner, Veltkamp points out, there’s a bit of an Easter egg: the zipper fly from a pair of jeans. “If you unzip it, there’s a different color fabric in there,” he says. “Kind of playful.”
“Great Northwest (?) III” — which also has Pride colors sewn in — can be read as an exhibition statement of sorts, a flag pledging allegiance to the natural beauty and quirkiness of the region, recurring themes in Veltkamp’s work.
To the right hangs “Great Northwest II,” depicting a soft yellow sun setting behind snowcapped mountains, with a lake glistening — thanks to a few well-placed shiny ribbons — amid verdant pines. Next to it, a fabric “WELCOME” sign fringed with a rainbow of ribbons marks this a queer-friendly space.
On this day, most of Veltkamp’s quilts are still folded on a table, while the museum crew paints various walls orange and pink to complement the green, purple, red and blue walls already completed. The exhibition space’s transformation is only halfway finished, but Veltkamp is already in awe. “Oh my goodness! So exciting,” he says with childlike wonder in his voice. “Wild!”
He’s here to add his newest quilt, a verdant, lush ode to Orcas Island. Once all of the quilts are up, “it’s gonna feel much more loving,” Veltkamp says.
Already hanging, in a red-painted room that will soon get a black-and-white chevron floor (à la the Red Room in Twin Peaks) are a series of fabric eyes sewn onto sheer white fabric floating from the ceiling. A dozen more eyes — belonging to a set of owls on hanging quilts nearby — follow our every move. Eyes are a recurring motif in Veltkamp’s work, representing being watched, whether by God, aliens or owls.
A few quilts (including a Star Wars homage made by Veltkamp’s aunt in the 1980s) will also be spread out on beds, currently in the assembly process. During my visit, a head- and footboard still leaned against the wall. Visitors will also be able to browse a pantry full of jams, made from local berries and flowers as part of Veltkamp’s Pantry project with his husband, artist Ben Gannon.
Also to be hung: crystal sun catchers, which will refract the incoming sun into a kaleidoscope of colors. “I like the idea of you walk in and you get rainbows on you,” Veltkamp says. “Even if you’re not gay … you can get touched by the rainbow.”
While his quilts often sparkle with humor, optimism and nostalgia (soda! milkshakes! splendid nature!) the specter of death is still ever-present, as in his 2016 quilt “Life Is Beautiful.” On a pink gingham background, black soft-edged letters spell out WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE — not a vanitas symbol, but a vanitas slogan, metaphorically screaming “carpe diem!” in your face.
Or, to use a local analogy: “To get all the green, you have to endure nine months of rain,” Veltkamp says.
Making quilts forms a protective padding against, or a soft respite from, what Veltkamp calls “a constant dread” of being alive in a hostile, horrible world. He calls it “the transfiguration of pain into joy.”
Veltkamp points back to the trauma of the AIDS crisis, and the human toll as well as the loss of artistic brilliance. Much like the Memorial Quilt, patchworking pain into something new is a necessity to keep going as a queer person in this world. “To survive,” he says, “you have … to focus on: ‘I'm gonna make beauty in this world.’ ”
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