Clarion voices were piped through the walls of the ArtsWest theater lobby on a recent Saturday afternoon. People were rehearsing Hair, singing, "When the mooooon is in the seventh house..." The hippie musical promises the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, and this particular song was a pop hit when it was released in 1969. If you heard it, you'd know that everything was going to be different soon. And everything was going to be great!
Three years after the song hit, Joey Veltkamp was born. He was adopted, gay, and living in Bozeman, Montana, and Spokane, Washington. Things were not great. The revolution did not come to Bozeman or Spokane, so Joey Veltkamp came to Seattle, where he became the friendliest artist anyone has ever known, in a good way. He wrote an art blog called "Best Of," which was unrelentingly sunny, and he built for himself the broad, accepting community he'd missed out on growing up. He made paintings and drawings, first of rainbows and bears, then of brightly patterned blankets veiling unseen figures on plain white backgrounds. When he came around to noticing that nobody can wrap themselves up for real comfort in a drawing of a blanket, he decided to teach himself to sew.
Fourteen full-size quilts, fourteen flags, and two wall hangings festoon the walls at ArtsWest and, like the reprise of Hair, tend their own legacies. Legacies like the AIDS quilt, that gigantic soft headstone first laid out on the National Mall in 1987 and still growing. Veltkamp did his stitching by machine, but the finishing is still lovably imprecise. Each quilt has A and B sides, usually text on one, images on the other. Colorful patterns offset big bubble-letter slogans, including "A DAY WITHOUT LESBIANS IS LIKE A DAY WITHOUT SUNSHINE" and "SEATTLE WOMEN'S CONVENTION" and "BEARS JUST WANT TO HAVE FUN." The pieces are meant to comfort the afflicted, and they don't much care about afflicting the comfortable. The entire installation is a safe space that calls out directly to those it means to shelter.
The title of the show is This is not a protest. It's a celebration! The duality is best represented in a quilt that says "YOU DON'T OWN ME" on the front. A dun-colored background lends the quilt a certain chromatic sorrow and implied desperation, but pull the quilt away from the wall to reveal the back and you discover, in a blast of hot-pink faux fur, the word "FREE."
A few years ago, Seattle artist and writer Matthew Offenbacher began to spread his opinion that Seattle art is distinguished by strains of feminism and queerness. In a way, him saying so made it true. Regional markers like mountains and water and evergreen trees and Twin Peaks were linked to a political history of suffrage, equal rights, and sexual and gender liberation. Veltkamp's show continues binding them together. He gives new fertility to the physical markers of the region—wood patterns, plaids, cutout trees and owls—by watering them with this renewed rainbow coalition. The revolution has come to a large swath of Seattle art. What's next?
Another revolution halfway around the world only brought harm to the artist Negar Farajiani, who also has a show of quilts in Seattle right now with something at stake. Farajiani is an electric young artist from Iran, brought to Seattle by M.I.A Gallery. She is showing six quilts, a video, and an enlarged old class photo of her mother with the school's name digitally replaced by an ancient poem extolling Iran's treatment of women.
Farajiani's work is futuristic. She uses slick, industrial fabric you wouldn't want to snuggle. Fabric is a soft medium; she instills it, Trojan-horse-like, with the hardened bodies and expressions of determined female athletes. Iranian female athletes are set upon from all sides; in 2011, the international governing board banned Iran's women's soccer team from the London Olympics qualifying match because the players were forced by their home regime to wear headscarves.
Farajiani adds candy-colored embroidery to the cool printed images of the athletes and their environments. She chooses unsentimental sections to gild with stitching: a Nike swoosh wristband, a racket smacking a ball, the outline of a backward baseball cap. Some figures are pixelated, like censored Iranian TV, or the ultimate object of censorship and institutional control in the Islamic Republic of Iran, women's bodies themselves.
In the looping video, Farajiani turns the camera on herself playing a children's game alone on the streets of Tehran, teasing out the "women play games, men play sports" trope. Nobody appears to notice her, which gives her a certain civic freedom, but the clips are also so short that she seems not to have lingered anywhere too long. By contrast, the athletes in her quilts are memorialized forever in action. They don't worry. A high jumper sailing across the bar wears a shirt printed with the galaxy, and the shirt has bubbled up in a way that looks like she's pregnant. Maybe she can give birth to a better world.