Joey Veltkamp is a queer visual artist who creates colorful “soft paintings” using needle, thread, fabric, and an incredible sense of humor and optimism. He’s been gathering awards and a myriad of impressive exhibitions for some time, most recently SPIRIT! at Bellevue Arts Museum, and, next up, Tell Your Cat I Said PSPSPS, which opens May 18 at Greg Kucera Gallery. In our interview, we talk about gray whales, artistic lineage, and resourcefulness in life and art.
Your work is many, many wonderful things, but up front is a celebration of the Pacific Northwest. What brought you here from Montana and what do you love about the Puget Sound?
Aw, thank you. It’s all very intentional because I just love it here so much. My folks divorced when I was young and we came west to Spokane, so I mostly grew up over there but shuttled back to Bozeman, MT for summer and holiday breaks. Both towns are quite different from when I lived in them. But especially Bozeman!
After college, I moved to Seattle and have been over on this side of the Cascades for the past 25-plus years. I have loved so many different aspects over the years. I remember the first time I saw all the brilliant greens as a kid and couldn’t believe that places like this existed. In my 20s and early 30s, I loved the queer beacon of Capitol Hill. And even as an adult living in Bremerton it keeps surprising me; like that our main mode of travel is by ferry. Or that there’s been a gray whale parked out a couple of blocks from us for a couple of weeks.
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You’ve talked about respecting the lineage of quiltmaking and working to avoid co-opting a tradition that you don’t feel a part of. What are the choices you make or the parameters you create to achieve this?
I came to quilting in kind of a backward way, so I don’t necessarily always associate my work with quilting, even if others do (or if it seems obvious that yes, these are quilts, duh). I was already a multimedia artist when I hit a rough patch of depression and started thinking about how quilts/fabric can comfort in a physical way, in a very specific way that paintings don’t quite do for me. So that’s what attracted me to it—the idea of them acting as a body surrogate (big and puffy and huggable), and their ability to communicate comfort, and the idea of leaving something behind.
In hindsight, I had a grandmother who, among many, many amazing talents, embroidered beautiful needlepoint tablecloths and tea towels. I have an aunt who owned a yarn and needle arts store in Montana during the '80s. (If you saw my BAM show, she’s the one who made my childhood Star Wars quilt.) Even my mother begrudgingly sewed me a costume last minute whenever I needed her to. So, obviously, I was steeped in fabric arts from a young age, and it was probably inevitable that I’d end up working predominantly in fabric—it’s a familial love language.
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I recall that some people who bought your "quilts" stopped using them when your work became more highly regarded, or valued as fine art. Can you elaborate on this dynamic, and how you feel about your work being hung on a wall or wrapped around a lap?
As the price points creep up, folks have stopped using them as much. And I certainly don’t blame them. But I’m just such a weirdo because in my head, if something is well-used it means it’s well-loved, so the biggest thrill you can give me as an artist is to use it and use it until it’s threadbare or full of patches. I just love things that are worn in! When I first began making the soft paintings, folks would show me their baby blankets and oftentimes, they were practically spiderwebs from being loved too much. But they did their job and comforted the owner. And at the end of the day, my job is simply to make the objects. Once they’re out in the world, I have no control. Sleep with them, get sexy on them, hang ‘em on a wall, or put them in deep storage.
Quilting was born of resourcefulness, but most quiltmaking has abandoned the economic origin of repurposing scrap fabric and relies on newly manufactured fabrics, which, in many ways undermines the entire origin. How do you source materials and balance people’s hang-ups about used material?
Oh gosh, yes, the scarcity of fabric created such importance. The idea that flour mills began making printed flour bags to help folks have prettier fabric is impossibly sweet. And isn’t it fascinating to live in such a time of abundance? We think about that all the time. Omg, I want a strawberry, but it’s January, and yet here they are in the store. But abundance comes with a cost so I try to be mindful about my fabric footprint, but I’m sure my habits would make many quilters cringe. Especially my grandmother, who was very resourceful.
Because I get to approach it from a different perspective, I let the piece dictate the type of material I use. Sometimes it calls for recycled fabrics. Other times, it definitely needs to be a certain shade of Kona cotton. But it really is a wild statistic about how much fabric ends up in landfills each year, and so every sheet or shirt makes a tiny bit of difference (at least in my head). And since I ruin every shirt I own pretty quickly, instead of throwing it out, I’ll just patch it up. People will comment from time to time, “My gawd, have some pride!” (“Sweetheart, I’m gay! I’m full of Pride!”) I have patched one pair of Ben’s pants so many times that at a certain point, I decided they were now officially Art and am holding on to them for the right project.
But I also think that relates to me being a bear/big boy as a kid and I could never keep anything new or nice. Ice cream dribbles and grass-stained jeans. I think I’ve owned one pair of white pants ever in my life. I love to incorporate used clothing in my work. I love embedding myself into the pieces and I think it’s romantic. Many times, I have popped up to the closet and grabbed one of my husband’s shirts and asked him, “Hey, I haven’t seen you wear this in years and it’s just right for a piece I’m working on.” On the flip side, some folks do still use them. I’m a donor daddy and I’ve been making the kids quilts and blankets since they were born. And so, they’ve never thought twice. But family are pretty much the only folks I think who still actively use them.
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You’ve woven a few side hustles into your creative life, can you tell me about some of the ups and downs of supplementing an artistic career with a more practical income?
Oh gosh, there really have been some ups and down because art kind of feels like an endless hustle. I’m self-taught and never thought I would identify as an Artist, so it took me a minute to find my path with lots of cringy moments along the way. When I was first learning how to "become" an artist, I kept hearing that "real artists" didn’t have a day job, which kind of blew my mind because… how?? Since we have bills to pay and my art just doesn’t cover my share, supplemental income isn’t optional. Besides, all of these cats aren’t gonna feed themselves. The primary reason I get to focus on my career as an artist is because I have a stable artist husband who keeps us locked down with a 9 to 5 paycheck plus benefits. It always feels a little funny talking about this, but I think it’s important to discuss. I don’t personally view having a day job as some sort of artistic failure. I’m pretty much a hermit locked up in my studio when I don’t have a job, so I can terrorize my husband since he's the only human I talk to all day. Plus, I really do love taking an unexpected job. In my early years, my main requirement was salary. As an older bear, I just want to work somewhere delicious. My most recent positions have been in places like the farmers markets, cookie shops, and a chocolate factory. I’d really like to work in a jelly factory next, but jobs like that just don’t fall into your lap.
You’ve been called “openly gay” in interviews. Does this phrase irk you the way it irks me? Like, “Look everyone! He’s admitting it!”
Oooh, I love pet peeves! Not using turn signals–argh!! But no, in that case, it didn’t bother me because they were also queer. But one that does occasionally irk me is when folks don’t think my art is queer enough if I don’t include rainbows. Like, if it doesn’t have a rainbow is it even gay? But then again, I really do love a rainbow! Life is complicated.
Most underrated PNW band. Go.
Katherine Hepburn’s Voice? Aqueduct? Murder City Devils?
Wait, wait–I know this one…Tullycraft!
Joey Veltkamp's show Tell Your Cat I Said PSPSPS opens May 18 at Greg Kucera Gallery. The First Thursday reception is Thursday, June 1 from 6-8 pm. The artist's talk is Saturday, June 3 at noon.
Find more of Veltkamp’s work at joeyveltkamp.com and follow him on Instagram at @joeyveltkamp.