wisdom of the underworld

Essay by Ben Gannon | Photographs by Sierra Stinson

Arriving at Joey Veltkamp’s February 2017 Vignettes exhibit, it was clear from the street looking into Rachel and John’s house that this show was dealing with the supernatural. Hanging in the front room window were sheer fabric panels with appliqué patches of heavily shadowed and made-up eyes announced the other-worldliness. Spirits are present and in many forms. A haunted space, like all indoor spaces at the end of winter, so charged with telekinetic and telepathic energy of its occupant(s). A haunted house, but in January (unlike October) we are familiar with ghosts, and in the January of this year the powers of naked death ascended to the leadership of the world.

Once inside and in the first room of the show there hangs, along with the sheer panels, a large black quilt. It is composed of spells and talismans, each smaller square housing a symbol of power and protection, an anchor point from which to journey into darkness. Skulls, crystals, pentagrams, the word “protect” in appliquéd ‘wood’ letters—homage to Gretchen Frances Bennett’s found stick word art.


Sharing the space with the eyes and the spell quilt were a pair of pillows placed on chairs, each with a broken heart emoji, invoking the kind and tragic power of Laura Palmer, another symbol of strength and resistance. It becomes clear that wherever the journey of these artworks is headed, grounding in power is necessary and some danger is present or lies ahead.

In the next room more sheer panels hang in the windows and more eyes look out from the gauzy material. Along with the eyed panels there was a table full of small ceramic ghosts painted up like the cosmos and sitting on small, round mirror disks, the infinity of their motif reflecting into infinity. There is little distinction in Joey’s work between outer space and the underworld – vacuum and death both infinite and un-survivable phenomenon.

Binding this second room with the first was a pair of flags and a new motif for Joey’s work – a black cat appears on the flags, almost identical to each other—the latter done by memory, on opposite faces of a wall, each with the phrase Déjà Vu appearing on it, the lettering the same but the colors slightly different and the cat figure in slightly different positions. This diptych is a direct reference to the movie The Matrix, where the repeated sighting of the same black cat as an experience of deja vu is revealed to be an indicator that there has been a significant change made to the fabric of the world of the matrix. Not only a personification of the phenomena of change, the cat is our familiar and our guide while traveling through the dimensions.

Also hanging with the eyes, the cats, and the cosmic ghosts is one of three quilts of its kind in the show. Multi-tonal, textured blacks patched together, the chorus of darkness interrupted with flashes of heat and light in the form of randomly sized triangles, trapezoids, parallelograms and rhombuses of color. Two more of these burning landscapes hang on the walls leading up the stairs to the final room of the show.  Akin to the blending of the underworld with outer space depicted with the ceramic ghosts, the landscapes depicted in these three quilts is both of the fire of space and the fires of hell. Accompanied by the indifferent harbinger in the form of the black cat, we are walking with Joey through the cosmic underworld.

The final space of the show, past the watching eyes and glittering ghosts and burning voids, is the bedroom upstairs. The sole artwork in the room is a quilt lying on the bed. The cats again appear; this time en masse and in distinctly different poses, on the quilt upstairs, the resident housecat Brigitte having found a comfortable spot for itself on the bed as well.

But what are the lessons from hell and the vacuum, of walking through this heartbreak simulation? Joey’s work participates strongly in the realm of the pop culture oracular, pulling in and manipulating the signs of culture of the moment, playing in their subtleties and shifting them around before casting them back in to the infinite sign constellation in the form of fabric objects with meanings made from Joey’s particular alchemy of working with sadness and elementally reconfiguring it into joy.

But all oracles have limits to their vision into the ocean of possibilities. And it is the brave or unprotected oracles that, in the midst of confusion, go deeper, towards the leveling wisdom of infinity and death, and the freedom brought forth from acknowledging that wisdom. In the face of the cruel madness and absurdity so evident in our world at this time, the reminder of our death is a reminder of our life. In the face of the infinite void of space, we are able to refocus on ourselves with a grounded perspective.

But it is not all grim contemplations of death and freedom and endless emptiness, and the cats in their various poses on the final quilt in the show remind us of that. With each change or glitch in the fabric of our worlds, with each appearance of the cat as a harbinger of change, there nonetheless remains the infinity of other worlds with other changes and glitches occurring all at once. If the wisdom to be gained from passing through hell and space is the infinite of the void, the wisdom to be gained from the multiplicity of black cats is the rich infinity of being, existence and possibility.

<< heartbreak simulation >>

new work by Joey Veltkamp

January 26, 2017

This is a show about memory: how such an easily corrupted phenomena shapes our truth and defines our reality. The way we remember the things that happen directly determines how we perceive reality. And since we cannot agree on what constitutes our shared reality because we all remember differently, how is existence and interaction with each other anything more than a practice in grief; a cycle of coming together only to come apart when the temporary truce of a shared reality breaks down? Are we at the dawn of the creation of our own reality as futurist Elon Musk suggests? Or are we at the end of times, as death cults have believed for centuries? In either case, this unbridgeable distance between truths, reality and shared memory traps us all in the prolonged division of a heartbreak simulation.

Detail from “ARE we real?” Simulation (Elon Musk says our reality is a simulation and I find that oddly comforting) Fabric and THREAD, 2017


Essay by Gretchen Bennett | Photographs by Sierra Stinson


Life is Beautiful

Joey Veltkamp is exhibiting a new quilted work, Life Is Beautiful, at the Tacoma Art Museum. The quilt, constructed of stitched batting and fabric and around 11 feet square, is his largest to date, collecting 12 different song lyric fragments under the banner of Sufjan Stevens’ lyric, We’re All Gonna Die. Titled Life Is Beautiful, the work was created for the TAM for its exhibition, NW Art Now, running May 13 to September 4, 2016. Joey’s TAM entry, while acknowledging our mortality, is also hiding hopeful song lyrics, embedded pink on pink in the body of the quilt, asking us to hold on. This quilt could be lifesaving.

Joey describes his quilted work “as existing on the edge between hopeful and bleak, candy colored sadness. One side is comforting,” an expanse of pink; “and one side is real,” appliquéd with We Are All Gonna Die. The comfort is also real.

Maybe the making of the work brings clarity to the artist, as he uses soft materials to face harder realities. The avoidance of this labor would be understandable, but Joey has said that making the work is compulsory for him and it gives him relief.

An example of the two-sided nature of his work is Old Sun New Day, a quilt made in 2015 to commemorate a friend’s death. White text is stitched onto bright sunrise—and sunset—colors. An archived Arts West website entry describes Joey’s fabric work as having “themes of comfort, social and political affirmation; dealing in Northwest mythologies, feminism, gender identity, quilt history (The Gee’s Bend Quilt Makers), (art quilt history: Faith Ringgold), The Carpenters, and queer politics. Aphorisms like “A day without lesbians is like a day without sunshine” are meant to replace worry with comfort.”

Sun in your heart,

                     la vie en rose.

                                      Thinkin’ ‘bout forever.

This speaks to the cycle of work and rest involved in the making of the work. “My quilts contain my love and my worry,” Joey says. He begins work in the studio each day around 7 a.m., after having breakfast with his partner, Ben, also an artist. “I love quilting – it’s meditation. I make art every day.” Joey explains that a few years ago he began both a meditation and quilting practice and that one or both of these helped him in a dark time. He became a donor daddy (“Papa Bear!”) for dear friends who had a beautiful baby boy. He began meditating. He cut and sewed quilts. He met Ben. He had another baby with his friends. His at-home studio practice, like his process, blends creative outlet and homemaking to become incomprehensible and familiar together.

American singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens describes his 2015 album, Carrie & Lowell as being inspired by the 2012 death of his mother, Carrie, and the family trips they took to Oregon during Stevens’ childhood. Recording the album helped Stevens process her death. In an interview on the music blog Pitchfork, Stevens says “with this record, I needed to extract myself out of this environment of make-believe. It’s something that was necessary for me to do in the wake of my mother’s death—to pursue a sense of peace and serenity in spite of suffering. It’s not really trying to say anything new, or prove anything, or innovate. It feels artless, which is a good thing. This is not my art project; this is my life.”

On Wikipedia, Stevens says about producer Thomas Bartlett, “Thomas took all

these sketches and made sense of it all.” A patchwork. “I was recording songs as a means of grieving, making sense of it. But the writing and recording wasn’t the salve I expected. I fell deeper and deeper into doubt and misery. It was a year of real darkness. In the past my work had a real reciprocity of resources – I would put something in and get something from it. But not this time.”

“I think a common thread in my work is the idea of not trying to create new exciting things,” says Joey, but rather to create works that slow us down for everyday life moments, so that we can work through them. “That means invoking previously existing things (such as song lyrics) and putting disparate things together to create new and nuanced relationships.”

I feel better

                  floating in space.

                                    Shine Bright.


For a 2014 quilt, Stardust / Helpless, Joey was inspired by Martin Scorsese’s 1978 film, The Last Waltz. In the film, The Band and Neil Young sing a version of Helpless, with recording artist Joni Mitchell chiming in: ‘I feel so helpless; I can hear you now.’

In an email, Joey writes, “I have to reposition myself mentally to not cry when I hear her sing ‘I can hear you now.’ Mitchell wrote the song Woodstock, about the festival she missed due to her manager’s advice to play Dick Cavett. The lyrics reference the poetic idea that we are made of stardust, which helps give comfort to the idea of death. In a recent (sewn fabric) flag, I made the A-side: We are Stardust and for part of the text, I used a kitten fabric. The kitten referenced a quilt I made for my friend Michelle, who was dying, and I used the remaining kitten fabric to make Lark (Joey’s daughter) one of her first dresses.” Joey bring this fabric back into life.

Crosby, Stills and Nash, who did attend Woodstock, covered Mitchell’s song, replaying their first-hand experience through her channeling of that experience. Mitchell’s understanding of Woodstock is like a dream, repeated.


         We are stardust

                           Billion-year-old carbon    We are golden  

         Caught in the devil’s bargain   And we’ve got to get ourselves    

                           back to the garden

In her essay, On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry makes a case for how beauty saves us, by saving itself. She tells us that beauty brings copies of itself into being, as we repeat what we find beautiful. I easily apply this to the fabric fragments and song lyrics in Joey’s work. A song, for example, the generative object, the thing thought to be beautiful, through its donation of stray lyrics, continues to be present in the newly begotten object, the quilt. Someone, “who gave rise” to the song’s creation remains “present in the newborn object.”

“Beauty always takes place in the particular,” writes Scarry, “and if there are no particulars, the chances of seeing it go down. Proust, for example, says we make a mistake when we talk disparagingly or discouragingly about ‘life’ because by using this general term, ‘life,’ we have already excluded before the fact all beauty and happiness, which take place only in the particular: we believed we were taking happiness and beauty into account, whereas in fact we left them out and replaced them by syntheses in which there is not a single atom of either.”

For Life Is a Beautiful, Joey used whatever pink fabric he could find, while remembering and looking for another particular pink. His work forms around certain bedsheets, a shirt, the chorus of a popular song, combining these, while not totally absorbing them.


I will always love you.

                  Life imitates art:

                                    We are your friends.


Comedian Louis CK warns that “everything that makes you happy is going to end at some point, and nothing ends well.” Introducing a puppy into the family, for example, is just “a countdown to sorrow.” The puppy won’t last forever. Joey has restructured his life around his family. “I have spent my life keeping people at a distance, as a safety mechanism, so I learned that you either build a wall so you won’t be hurt, which means you can’t fully participate in relationships, or you leave when the stakes get high. I can’t leave any of these people now and that creates anxiety. The fact that something could happen to any of us, that idea is present in a lot of my quilts.” At the same time, this fabric of family, as Stevens sings, may be the “only thing keeping me from driving this car, highlife, jack knife, into the canyon at night.”

Joey’s children like to have songs in their heads. His daughter will sing ‘row, row, row your boat’ for an hour. She likes loose fabric, pockets, small spaces. Elliptical lyrics form a space, where you can be for minutes at a time. She is singing ‘ gently down the stream,’ repeating the artist’s intention that his works create a transitional state, sleeping, “drifting towards or away from terra firma.”

Lark is complete, while her face presents a small version of Joey’s face. The object which resembles another object is still not that object; it remains apart. Joey, without precedent, remains “present in the newborn object,” Lark, also without precedent.

Scarry writes that when you encounter something, which seems to be entirely new to you, then it presents the world as new, presents a filter for seeing or understanding something newly. “It is the very way the beautiful thing fills the mind and breaks all frames that gives the ‘never before in the history of the world’ feeling.” Beauty saves.

“First, beauty is sacred.” “Second, beauty is unprecedented.” One believes that the loved or desired object has no precedent, and then they remember another like object that is reflective of the second beautiful thing, only to recall the first beautiful object also has no precedent.

“The first and second attributes of beauty are very close to one another, for to say that something is “sacred” is also to say either “it has no precedent” or “it has as its only precedent that which is itself unprecedented. But there is also a third feature: beauty is lifesaving, a plank amid the waves of the sea.”

Joey’s soft works re-create “the structure of a perception that occurs whenever one sees something beautiful; it is as though one has suddenly been washed up onto a merciful beach: all unease, aggression, indifference suddenly drop back behind one, like a surf that has for a moment lost its capacity to harm. Beauty.” Take a rest in stolen lyrics, reconfigured into this “hymn to beauty.”

The hymn of Lark may be “called a palinode to the beauty of” her father. Just as Joey’s sewn works work their borrowed fragments away from but are still part of the larger pieces they are cut from.

What is it to be in error, to fail to see the worth and beauty of the object presented? You can change your mind, and that’s beautiful. You find yourself falling; you are on the plank and suddenly caught. For now, you have made it back to the garden.


don’t you look up to me,

                  be even better than me


The quilts open up and hold. Joey says his goal is to “preload or embed,” to create a bond between this work and the viewer, and to bring to this space between the two, pleasure, an open embrace and rest. A lay-down with scraps and songs.

How To Disappear Completely 2015 is a work that draws from a Radiohead lyric, “which felt like they were referencing suicide,” Joey says, “I started humming the song and then realized that I was depressed. I didn’t always realize it before, but it kind of crystallized, and I became aware that I have an ongoing internal soundtrack that matches my emotional state. And I didn’t know I was so sad until that song popped into my head. And then it stayed with me until I made the flag and released it.”

He first began drawing quilts. “I was obsessed” with making these drawings, “as soon as I recognized it was a release.” He tells me that maybe “the act of creation is traumatic. And that all beauty is connected to pain.” Maybe the pain he refers to is what labors. And the beauty is the transfiguration of the commonplace, the ordinary thing, a blanket, into art.

Parts of Life Is Beautiful are given a special power of narration, like a story being told by different people (different songs), from different points of view. In his essay, Rembrandt and the Body, English writer John Berger writing about Rembrandt’s paintings, says that “these points of view can only exist in a corporeal space which is incompatible with territorial or architectural space. Corporeal space is continually changing its measures by waves, not meters. Hence, its necessary dislocation of ‘real space.’”

Rembrandt’s self-portraits, says Berger, hint at the fact that “he grew old in a climate of economic fanaticism and indifference–not dissimilar to the climate of the period we are living through. The human was no longer self-evident; it had to be found in the darkness. Painting–particularly in the second half of his life–was a search for an exit from the darkness.”

Rembrandt does not readily hold out his search for the body for us, he gives it to us in pieces. “Baroque art, (which Rembrandt profited from), loved foreshortenings and improbable juxtapositions.” Patched quilt bodies collapse experience, information and popular cultural glimpses. They are “furtive.”

It may happen with each viewer who stands in front of Life Is Beautiful, to keep borrowing from Berger, that “before his art, the spectator’s body remembers its own inner experience.” This soft work is outstretched arms, occupying a “supreme and central position.” In the “fusion between two bodies not only desire can pass but also pardon or faith.” The quilting shows itself to be a process of dissecting the body to realign it with another body, ultimately.


Bigger than religion:

                  I slay all day.

                                    Let the sun shine in.


At first, the particular truth of Life Is Beautiful can be missed. Large and pink and placed in the common space of the art gallery help us to see it, while masking the truth of the embrace it provides. Old clothes and new words continue to proliferate in fragments, as evidence of daily life, finding their way onto Joey’s sewn works, each one a raft of rescued scraps with the promise of rest, life.

Thoughts of comfort, self-care, the consideration of others, and unprecedented pink fabric culture are the artist’s points of contemplation for making remedies to isolation and despair. Don’t forget, the pink calls, what Arthur Danto refers to as “the world as everyone lives in it, the world of dailiness, the world of common experience, the dear, predictable world anyone longs for.” This everyday saves, as we cobble together our undercover sleep, our songs, our pockets of darkness.

Looking up the published lyrics for Stevens’ song, Fourth of July reveals that the end line is transcribed as we’re all gonna die (X7). Life Is Beautiful presents private moments and small matters sewn up for larger public view, including family sheets and friends’ T-shirts. Rest here and, yes, rehearse. “I practice a form of pre-grieving when I address death in the work. This is a kind of preparation.” This can be read as empathy, which the blanket at TAM gives shape to, as it also gives shape to a myriad of individual unparsed feelings begetting more feelings (X7).


I’m no longer afraid to die     Cause that is all that I have left       Yes! Yes!
And I’m no longer afraid to dance tonight     Cause that is all that I have left     Yes! Yes!

The Gift of Perspective : A Conversation with Matthew Offenbacher & Jennifer Nemhauser

When we received an email announcing Deed of Gift, a collaborative art piece by Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser, we immediately asked them to share with us the story and their perspective of this unique project. It was so moving to us, the way this work is simultaneously an act of subversion, humility, generosity, and kindness. This work moves us and makes us grateful. So thank you, thank you, thank you to Matt and Jennifer for the growth you are creating in this community. We’ll let you take it from here.

Matthew Offenbacher and Jennifer Nemhauser

Jennifer Nemhauser: Maybe we should start by describing our project.

Matthew Offenbacher: Right! It’s an art project called Deed of Gift. We took around $20,000 of a generous art award I won two years ago [the Neddy at Cornish], and used it to buy a collection of artwork to give to the Seattle Art Museum for their permanent collection. It’s the first time we’ve “officially” collaborated, even though we’ve been partners for 25 years, and we talk through work things with each other all the time.

J: The artists are Daft Kuntz (which is a collaboration between Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven), Anne Focke, Klara Glosova, Wynne Greenwood, Ann Leda Shapiro and Joey Veltkamp.

M: We worked closely with SAM curators to finds points of common interest to shape this list. It was a long process of conversation that resulted in the work that we bought and SAM took. I’m very proud of the artists and work we came up with. The artists all live in the Seattle area—

J: Do you want to explain why that is significant?

M: I think there’s some aspect of this work that’s arguing for why a kind of “regionalism” makes sense right now—a focus on the specialness of art and the history of art from the perspective of this place. I don’t mean in a folksy kind of way, separate from what’s happening globally, but in the sense that a commitment to our region is a commitment to understanding the world. Like, you know, that Matthew Stadler essay I love so much? Let me find a quote: “The institution and the city are at the center of a connected, dynamic globe, always—never a remote or special space awaiting the arrival of art and insight from distant capitals, always the center of a global discourse that returns and returns, as blood through a heart.”

J: Nice.

M: The other thing I wanted to point out is that all the works have feminist and queer themes.

J: We are such children of the 70s!

M: That’s when Ann Leda made her two paintings! Kissing hermaphroditic mer-people and astronauts. So amazing. The astronaut one has little airplanes skywriting “one needs a cock to get by”.

Ann Leda Shapiro, Women Landing on Man in the Moon, 1971, watercolor on paper

Ann Leda Shapiro, Two Sides of Self, 1971, watercolor on paper
Image Courtesy of Seattle Art Museum

J: I love that Ann Leda’s paintings have a history with the Whitney [Two Sides of Self was censored from a show at the Whitney in 1973, and Women Landing on Man in the Moon was made in response], and the Daft Kuntz print has a connection with SAM. As I understand it, “So good it could have been made by a man” was something Vic overheard at the opening of her show at SAM, at the time of the Elles show two years ago. Just goes to show: the more things change….

Daft Kuntz (Dawn Cerny and Victoria Haven), So Good It Could Have Been, 2012, silkscreen on paper

M: I like how we ended-up with a group of artists who all do things in our community—as organizers, teachers, activists, community leaders. I’m interested in how this plays out in their work. For example, I think Joey has taken up a form of art that’s associated with family and community and turned it kind-of inside-out—so that the public spaces his quilts end up in are somehow transformed into communal spaces, spaces of shared experience.

Joey Veltkamp, A-side: G L A C I E R / B-side: Glacier National Park (Pendleton Park Series), 2013, fabric, batting, thread

J: That seems like the opposite mood from Klara’s paintings, where people are in a community, but still feel so isolated.

Klara Glosova, Life on the Sidelines, 2014, watercolor on paper

M: Yeah, that mood of alienation is strong. What about Wynne’s video? Young Women Warrior Prepared for Battle. Community or alienation?

Wynne Greenwood, YOUNG WOMAN WARRIOR PREPARED FOR BATTLE, 2007, single channel DVD

J: Way to put me on the spot! I think the video, like so much of Wynne’s work, is about finding a way through. Hopefully taking advantage of having a community, but also knowing that, ultimately, we are kind of on our own. It’s inspiring and somehow reassuring that it is kind of a mess for everybody, because that video is so messy.


M: For me, it’s also something about power, the power to quite literally paint your own world—but also how fucked-up that can be. That’s kind of the theme of Anne F.’s book too.

Anne Focke, a pragmatic response to real circumstances, 2006, softcover book

J: A pragmatic response to real circumstances—the title kind of says of it all.

M: We should also talk about how many other collections we could have put together in place of this one.

J: Yes. I can say with no hesitation that we could have made a collection of equal quality twenty times over. It would be ridiculously easy to assemble a similarly awesome collection of work by completely different people—not even counting other pieces by these same people. And think of all of the themes we didn’t even touch with this work. Like all that great stuff about loving the monsters we are, scorned for timber, gnarly decomposition as reclaiming that you wrote about in “Green Gothic”.

M: If anyone wants to give us another $20,000 we’re happy to assemble a different awesome collection.

J: Or maybe lots of other people will decide to make their own collections. A big theme of Deed of Gift is that there could be many more people collecting “museum quality” art right here in River City [Jennifer starts singing songs from The Music Man]. We’ve talked a lot about how some people don’t hesitate to spend $1000 on a sofa, but would feel completely decadent spending $1000 on a piece of art.

M: Yeah, why is that?

J: I think it’s something about people not trusting themselves to make good decisions about art. Maybe also because they are objects and people feel like it’s a big commitment. It seems easier to spend money on transient experiences—like dinner out or vacation, or even a concert. I think it would be awesome if more people could feel like it was okay to buy a piece of art, live with it for a few years, and then let it circulate again if they’ve moved on. Or start giving art as gifts—how fun is it to tell someone that you will buy them a piece of art that you pick out together?

M: That would be awesome. You could totally spend a few hundred bucks on something, enjoy having it, it’s not such a big deal. Not thinking “is this a good investment?” or “will I want this in 10 years?” —but more like, “this thing is speaking to me right now and I want to invite it home.”

J: Like in the Sea-Cat video?

M: Yeah! Let’s put a link to it, it’s classic. Collective art collecting!

J: I love the idea that when you buy art from a local artist you are investing in our overall quality of life. It’s kind of like a public radio fundraiser—you can listen for free, but you feel so much better when you make a donation. The tote-bag or whatever is just a bonus.

M: In making Deed of Gift we had a lot of questions about how artists are supported, and how a big part of that support is people who buy art.

J: We’ve talked about it in terms of the metaphor of an ecosystem. Especially in a city that’s changing as fast as Seattle is, you really see the potential for a whole segment of the population to go extinct.

M: I think there’s this misconception of what artists are contributing. Many people seem to have the impression that artists are small-scale business people, producers of things whose value should be judged by the market-share they attract.

J: Totally. When we got a chance to live in Rotterdam for three months last year for your residency, it was a completely different vibe. Artists still saw the importance of circulating work through a market, but there was a strong sense in society of having artists integrated in every community. It was part of a good quality of life, like really great bike paths. It also seemed something baked-in to the education system. It made everyone feel like everyone had something to say about art. It didn’t feel like it was such a precious, elitist activity.

M: One result is that the artists we lived with there seemed so much less stressed out!

J: Yeah. So definitely, getting money directly to more artists, taking award money and distributing to more artists in the community felt great. Getting work into SAM—underlining the idea that museums also have a critical role in the local art ecosystem—also super important. I think like a lot of people, I have a love/hate relationship with Seattle. This project was definitely a way to focus on the love part.