Bellevue Arts Museum’s SPIRIT! evokes queer sentimentality, empathy, and hope

The exhibit, which is heavily influenced by Puget Sound, runs until Oct. 23.

Multimedia queer folk artist, Joey Veltkamp, has brought the celebration of his career as a local artist to the Bellevue Arts Museum through his exhibit, SPIRIT!

The exhibit runs until Oct. 23, where the valences of the word spirit, such as homecoming, school spirit, amateur theatre, student government, hippie spirit, and mystic spirituality are infused within each piece.

Veltkamp was born in Montana and has lived in the Seattle area for over half of his life, although he currently resides in Bremerton with his partner, Ben Gannon. Veltkamp’s pathway into creating art can be described as nontraditional: while working a job in the late 1990s, his boss presented him with a gift card from the closest store, which was Seattle Art Supplies. Veltkamp was unsure of how to proceed.

“I got a beginning oil kit that was the exact amount of the gift certificate and then I had some pals that would come over for happy hours,” said Veltkamp, who explained how both of his friends were art history majors in college who would provide him feedback on his paintings.

“After about 10 years, I had my first show of paintings at a restaurant in Seattle called ‘Lark,’ and then just slowly kept digging at it and ended up here,” said Veltkamp.

While he has had art displayed at the Bellevue Arts Museum in the past, this is Veltkamp’s first solo museum show — about three times as large as his previous gallery shows. SPIRIT! is heavily influenced by Puget Sound, and Veltkamp frequently combines text with images to create cheeky tones — with sometimes dark humor — while always remaining optimistic.

“They’ll expect a lot of vulnerability,” said Veltkamp, adding that for two years he was working on the exhibit in theory, and then took two additional years to work on it in practice. In short, SPIRIT! has been Veltkamp’s pandemic project.

Veltkamp originally wanted a cheeky title, such as “Whatever happened to all those songs about rainbows?” to point to the disillusionment of the lies of life, or the lies we tell ourselves about life.

“Because I thought it was getting too depressive, I changed the title to SPIRIT! thinking of all the— it kind of was an overall umbrella and thinking about all the many balances of spirit,” said Veltkamp.

Life is Beautiful by Joey Veltkamp. Photo courtesy of Mark Woods.

Life is Beautiful by Joey Veltkamp. Photo courtesy of Mark Woods.

For the physical work, Veltkamp explained how pieces of quilt are hung up in unusual ways, in addition to flags, sculptures, and a bear rug.

“There is a collaborative project I do with my husband,” said Veltkamp. “This is our second iteration called, Pantry, and it’s literally just a hundred jars of jams and jellies that we’ve preserved, both from our garden and from our friends.”

The original iteration of Pantry came from a 100-year-old farmhouse that was going to be destroyed in the Eastlake neighborhood, where Veltkamp and Gannon formerly lived. Near the farmhouse’s front door there was an overgrown white rose bush. While feeling sentimental about leaving Seattle after 20 years, Veltkamp took petals from the rose and made jam out of it.

“The second iteration I think is more interesting and it’s more about two queer weird gay bear dudes who moved to a small town — 40,000 people — and live in a neighborhood full of super kind neighbors and also lots of other queer people,” said Veltkamp.

Joey Veltkamp. Courtesy of Logan Westom.

Joey Veltkamp. Courtesy of Logan Westom.

According to Veltkamp, the couple planted about 40 fruit trees since moving into their new home and hope to continue growing their paradise. At 50 years old, Veltkamp remembers coming out in his early twenties — when lots of well-meaning people constantly told him being queer is merely a tiny part of one’s identity, he said.

“Looking back, I’ve always known that I was gay, and it’s informed everything! It’s not a tiny part, it’s an essential part,” said Veltkamp, who feels honored to have his exhibit displayed during Pride month.

“One of the things we did was hang these kind of suncatchers in the galleries as kind of a metaphor for hanging rainbows on anyone that comes in,” said Veltkamp. “So, even if you’re not gay, you get to experience this very intimate portraiture of gayness.”

Although he found embarrassment with the attention that was placed on his artwork, Veltkamp found the creation of the chevron floor in the red room to be powerful and central to the show. His other favorite portion of his exhibit is Pantry because for the first iteration, the jams and jellies were merchandised for sale, and now it’s officially art that the museum has displayed in a sweet and beautiful way.

“Every time I look at it, it just somehow combines all my nostalgia for my grandmother in Montana, and also my love for my husband,” said Veltkamp.

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Shasta, by Joey Veltkamp, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Galle

Shasta, by Joey Veltkamp, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Galle

Joey Veltkamp and Ben Gannon. Courtesy of Logan Westom.

Shasta, by Joey Veltkamp, 2020. Photo courtesy of Jacqui Galle