THE LIFESAVING QUALITIES OF JOEY VELTKAMP’S LARGE QUILTED WORK: LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL
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.”
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.
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!