A United States flag, stitched onto blue fabric, is folded on itself and spewing streams of subtle orange strips of fabric, as on fire, but nowhere near engulfed.

Love Letter to Joey Veltkamp

Joey Veltkamp, SELF-PORTRAIT AS AMERICA, 2020. Fabric and thread. 62 × 46 inches.

When I first look at Joey Veltkamp’s work, it’s clear to me that his textiles are a vehicle for dissent. The quilts—or “soft paintings,” as he prefers to call them—are functional works of art. Continuing the generations-old tradition of grassroots rebellion, their main purpose is not to protect but to protest.

What first drew me to Veltkamp’s work was his perspective as a queer artist. His pieces serve as defiant statements: Gay Horse (Hey!) (2018) offers a queer vision of The West; Self-Portrait As America, 2020 (2020), which depicts a burning United States flag, is a visually jarring critique of misguided patriotism. By definition, to queer something is to disrupt or even spoil it, to shatter preconceived notions and force a new mindset to the forefront. Veltkamp’s most recent show, Lumberton, Wash. at Greg Kucera Gallery in Seattle, accomplished that and then some. 

Veltkamp deftly criticizes the vanity that dominates nationalist self-perception. His soft paintings expertly expose and examine the ugly underbelly of our increasingly divided United States. 

The delightful paradox inherent in Veltkamp’s textiles—namely, his use of a traditional form to voice often unsavory and unpatriotic opinions—is perhaps what I love most about his work. In such serious times, there’s something almost gleeful about his form of resistance. I, for one, welcome the levity.

A mountainous mass of strange and abstracted facial features mold together—red-painted lips, soft peachy skin, sharp nose, sharp green eyes ,and all—and rise out of the bottom of the frame. Monstrous yet lovely, this figure is enrapturing.

Love Letter to Huguette Caland

Huguette Caland, Eux, 1978. Oil on linen. 39.5 x 39.5 inches.

Huguette Khoury Caland (1931–2019) was a force to be reckoned with. One of Lebanon’s best-known artists during her lifetime, Caland is still considered a leading artist of the Arab world and beyond. I love the breadth of her practice; her cheeky kaftans covered in erotic line drawings and her bright, whimsical paintings populated with sensuous forms, depicting bodies as landscapes. 

Caland grew up with a creative spirit and a talent to express her inner world. In an interview with Ricardo Karam in 2006 she explains how, as a child, she didn’t realize she had an imagination, nor that her experience of reality was a result of her imagination and dreams. She describes where she grew up in Lebanon and remembers drawing numerous characters on the walls, each of which had different personalities, names, and voices. Caland left her comfortable life in Lebanon to pursue a life of art. Over the years she continued to paint bold and expressive portraits, veering toward abstraction. 

I admire her courageous, rebellious spirit, her stubbornness, and her drive to follow her passion. She was so unabashedly herself, never aggressive and always poised. Qualities that come through in her playful compositions and multidisciplinary practice.

Caland said that she ultimately wanted to be friends with herself. A brief look through her oeuvre proves that she did just that. It is difficult for a woman to pursue these dreams and be taken seriously, especially back then; but Huguette achieved both magnificently.

A spherical, squatty bottle with two ornate necks, is draped with braids and shimmers in a semi-rusted, semi-iridescent blue.

Love Letter to Beatrice Wood

A spherical, squatty bottle with two ornate necks, is draped with braids and shimmers in a semi-rusted, semi-iridescent blue.
Blue Lustre Double Necked Bottle with Braided Decoration, ca. 1969, glazed earthenware, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Dorothy and George Saxe, 1995.

Beatrice Wood’s pottery has always seemed so alive to me. The forms are exhilarating and strong. And in her embrace of uncertainty, Wood’s glazed pots make the argument for a spontaneous life. 

Wood didn’t set out to be a potter. She wanted to be a painter, then an actress, then who knows. But she wasn’t fickle, she was simply open to all sorts of lives. She dove into the possibilities, studying at Paris’s acclaimed Académie Julian, running off to Giverny, training at the Comédie-Française—she rocketed herself into the world. 

Wood lived life brashly, wholly, triumphantly. In her mid-thirties, she moved to California, eventually settling in Ojai, a little city nestled in a valley 400 miles south of where we both were born; it was, she reflected, “a very alive place.” There she reinvented herself yet again: Wood became a potter.

If other artisans she knew liked earth tones, Beatrice chased luster and incandescence. She became known for her iridescent surfaces and theatrical forms: a bulbous gold teapot shimmers atop a tiny base, a chalice of faces and waving arms, brilliant crystalline blues. Much like Wood herself, her vessels are expressive and visceral, potent beings rife with soul. 

A woman wearing a black dress with rectangles stitched into it stands before a pink wall with a stagelight focused on her, casting a long black shadow behind her. The same pattern on her dress is framed and hung on the wall behind her.

Love Letter to Juliana Giraffe

 A woman wearing a black dress with rectangles stitched into it stands before a pink wall with a stagelight focused on her, casting a long black shadow behind her. The same pattern on her dress is framed and hung on the wall behind her.
Giraffe Studios, Audition for a Role in my Own Life (film still)

I first learned about Juliana Giraffe through her band Midnight Sister. Their first record, Saturn Over Sunset, offers a series of brilliant, uncomplicated, light-catching character studies. Shortly after discovering that album, I found Giraffe’s other gems and realized how fluidly she shape shifts between genres. All at once, she is a musician, mime, photographer, cinematographer. She builds these visual worlds with her sister, Nicky, as Giraffe Studios in Los Angeles.

Her surreal and vibrant filmmaking evokes a color-blocked noir. Both musical and visual, Giraffe creates worlds equally fearless and droll. It doesn’t seem like she has any self-constructed limits. As a person who is constantly limiting myself, I admire Giraffe’s tenacity. Perhaps I could’ve absorbed more of that diligence if I had listened more closely to a line in the final song of Saturn Over Sunset, where Giraffe croons, unafraid and ruminative: “What a shame it is / to have fears that are ten feet tall.” 

Giraffe towers over fear. She laughs into its shadowy meadows in Midnight Sister’s recent second album, Painting The Roses, and cuts through its canvas in Giraffe Studios with wide, radiant strokes of color. Giraffe is building a world of both sight and sound that shimmers with a story behind every shade.

A figure is seated on a chair holding a vase, their limbs drawn using simple lines and shaded in such a way that confuses both dimension and permanence. What seems to be another figure behind them reaches either to or through them.

Love Letter to Tahnee Lonsdale

Tahnee Lonsdale, paper thin (2020/2021). Spray paint and oil on canvas. 60 x 48 inches.

Often on my mind these days are the blurred distinctions between our public and private lives. LA-based artist Tahnee Lonsdale’s recent paintings tenderly depict this dissolution of boundaries. The entangled, abstracted figures in her works are varying degrees of translucent, signaling corporeal permeability. Her figures appear to be waxing and waning as they inhabit dreamlike interiors and color fields. It is often unclear to whom each limb belongs and how many bodies lay within the bounds of the painting. 

I find solace in Lonsdale’s intuitive treatment of color and playful painterly approach. Lonsdale uses oil and spray paints jointly in her practice, both of which contribute to the layered, gestural nature of her works. She fuses tradition (oil paint, art historical, and religious references) with contemporary manipulations and tensions (spray paint, questions of domesticity, intimacy, and gender roles). 

Her work from the past year speaks to collective anxieties surrounding isolation, physical proximity, and our inescapable interconnectedness. In Paper Thin (2020)—one of the first paintings I encountered of hers—a headless figure sits on a pink table with tangerine forearms and hands crossed, cradling a bouquet. A tangle of limbs surrounds the figure against the verdant green background. The concentrated orange of their hands reminds me of an infrared heat lamp, a neon sign illuminating, and a flickering fireplace: warmth. Lonsdale’s paintings are a welcome invitation to turn inwards. 

Wedged into a large gash in a curved wall, matte gold, geometric crystallings pile up, at once coming out of and crowding into this opening in a wall.

Love Letter to Paige Smith

Wedged into a large gash in a curved wall, matte gold, geometric crystallings pile up, at once coming out of and crowding into this opening in a wall.
Paige Smith, Urban Geode. Sculpture. Courtesy of Paige Smith.

If you believe the mystics and fortune-tellers, there is an infinite amount of psychic energy swirling around Sedona, Arizona. The town’s otherworldly power extends more than an hour’s drive away in Phoenix, the sprawling metropolis where I reside. You can channel this mystical energy by purchasing a decorative (and overpriced) crystal at one of the characterless strip malls that dot the urban landscape. They’ve become so ubiquitous that I wonder if these colorful pieces of quartz hold any spiritual or artistic abilities at all.

But when I see one of Paige Smith’s (a.k.a. A Common Name) Urban Geode installations on a brick at a Southern California coffee shop or in a snapshot on Instagram, my soul is stirred. These simple, inconspicuous resin formations catch my eye in a way that a cheap souvenir cannot and remind me that the earth is still capable of sending us messages. They’re a precious creation in a place where skyscrapers and other man-made objects block out the beauty of the natural landscape.

“I want these geodes to inspire you to get away from everything that distracts you,” she told The Fanzine in 2018.

Despite all the commercialism and other distractions that vie for our attention, nature still wants to have a conversation with us. Smith’s art reminds me that we don’t have to travel to a resort town or buy a shiny rock to have it. We just need to be willing to listen.

A painting of a "Chase" bank on fire, the storefront pristine and seemingly untouched with flames roaring out from the roof with gushes smoke just behind it.

Love Letter to Alex Schaefer

A painting of a Chase bank on fire, the storefront pristine and seemingly untouched with flames roaring out from the roof with gushes smoke just behind it.
Alex Schaefer, Chase Burning, 2011. Painting. 28 x 22 inches. Courtesy of Alex Schaefer.

Over the past year, I have felt increasingly nostalgic for the times I was able to aimlessly browse museums and galleries for hours. I grew up in Las Vegas, so I didn’t experience large halls filled with art until I moved. Because of the pandemic, I turned to internet browsing and discovered brilliant creators in the process.

Los Angeles-based artist Alex Schaefer encapsulates the multiple sides to society in his work — beautiful views and uncontrollable capitalism. As a painter, he portrays an anger toward corporate entities. Yet his portfolio has the range to highlight the city’s beautiful sides, from Echo Park to different skyline views. These are places I have never visited in Los Angeles, but someday hope to.

Schaefer’s standout piece, Chase Burning (2011), is one of many in his series of prominent banks on fire. I enjoy his cheeky daring  side as an artist—Schaefer made the painting en plein air in front of an actual Chase bank, alarming both the LAPD and the Chase company spokesperson. His series of burning buildings showcases Schaefer’s flexibility, painting both scenes of everyday life and commentary on consumerism. 

In a 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Schaefer described Chase Burning as a “visual metaphor for the havoc that banking practices have caused to the economy.” A decade later, this piece still rings true to me.

Full-body painting on found material of a woman standing upright, her hair short and lips painted the same bold red as the rest of the outline of her body. She wears little clothing and balances a large, round object on her head.

Love Letter to Margaret Kilgallen

Full-body painting on found material of a woman standing upright, her hair short and lips painted the same bold red as the rest of the outline of her body. She wears little clothing and balances a large, round object on her head.
Margaret Kilgallen, Untitled, 1999. Acrylic on wood, 17.3 x 7.5 inches.

Margaret Kilgallen died of breast cancer at 33, the same year I started college. It was 2001, and her death didn’t register with me at the time. Years later, I realized how much her work meant to me. Kilgallen was part of the Mission School, a fairly disparate collection of California artists grouped together in the 90s because they were based in the Mission District in San Francisco.

Although I’m from Reno, Nevada, I spent a lot of time growing up in San Francisco. In the early aughts, I was swaddled in skateboards, spray paint cans, cheap beer, and a cheap, subconscious misogyny. Women who skateboarded were “betties.” The word “bitch” was used an obnoxious amount, directed at people young and old, of all races and genders.

Cruising through San Francisco, I was regularly in contact with Kilgallen’s immediately recognizable faces and full-bodied subjects. Although it didn’t encompass the entirety of her output, street art was a major focus of Kilgallen’s work. Her pieces were all over the city without calling attention to themselves. They seemed like part of the patina of the city: not something to think too deeply about.

Cultivating a depiction of womanhood that refused stereotypes, Kilgallen spent long hours developing her craft. This is something that, skating past, I never cared to consider. A typical Kilgallen figure has the same wrinkles and divots that every human body has. Rather than playing down one’s bodily flaws, Kilgallen accentuates them, to great effect. Twenty years later, I now realize how Kilgallen’s art has impacted my own conceptions of feminism and femininity.

Passing by it on the street, often without realizing, her work forced me to confront my own sexist biases and prejudices. In a documentary filmed the year before her death, Kilgallen states, “I’d like to change the emphasis of what’s important when looking at a woman.” She succeeded in this, for me and countless others. 

Small, handwritten text reading "This is WHERE THE REVEREND LIVES" is etched beneath a rendering of a small house, swallowed up by a sea of white paint. Gouging across the center-right of the canvas, a mass of black and an abutting mass of warm pink hover.

Love Letter to Anne Carmack

Anne Carmack, This Is Where The Reverend Lives, 2019. Acrylic on Canvas. 36 x 48 inches. Courtesy of Anne Carmack.

Somewhere in Pico, Santa Monica, Anne Carmack walks by three balloons barely floating in an alleyway trash can. She takes a picture and labels it “THE PARTY’S OVER.” And just like that, a couple of discarded decorations become a piece of art. 

That’s what Anne does. She starts a conversation between image and language, creating romance and longing from the things that other people don’t see. In her paintings, a hollow looking house is paired with “THIS IS WHERE THE REVEREND LIVES.” In another, a faceless rabbit runs toward “SPEAK OF A JOY.” The meaning making of Anne’s pieces happen only when both the text and the shapes are absorbed as a pair, the two things contrasted side by side within the context of their whole. The paintings’ feeling, perhaps, is the bridge built between the text and the paint strokes, the command for joy and the eager rabbit — each component changing the meaning of the other, the combination creating something I feel on my deepest, most human level. 

It’s 10 a.m. I’m typing, drinking tea; the dog is by my feet. Anne’s painting on our bookshelf reads “THIS IS EVERYTHING WE NEED.” In Pico, my dear friend Anne has been up for hours. I check my Instagram, and there it is — her latest little masterpiece from this morning’s walk. It’s a picture of an abandoned cat tower, captioned “ANOTHER LESSON IN LOSS.” I smile and double tap it: the modern day love letter that never says enough. 

A dog rears on its hind legs, a snarl on its face. Its coat is multicolored and impressionistic, set against a deep blue backdrop.

Love Letter to Rick Bartow

Rick Bartow, Dog Barking at Nothing at All, 2011. Acrylic on Panel. 16 x 12 inches. Courtesy of Rick Bartow.

Rick Bartow (1946–2016) was captivated with ideas of the self. Artists often reference themselves in their work, but Bartow continued this practice through unique symbolism. While some of his paintings are easily recognizable as Rick —like pastel drawings of him wearing his signature wire-framed glasses, holding a cigarette—more often, he is represented by creatures from the animal world, both real and imagined. 

His most powerful self portraits appear to have numerous layers. In the midst of chaotic brushstrokes and splatters, animal faces and hybrid bodies express a strained experience of the world. The results are grotesque, alarming, and extremely vulnerable. 

His sense of humor also appears, reminding viewers of his personal and stylistic complexity. For Bartow, art was therapeutic. By centering himself in his creations, he worked through and confronted the PTSD and alcoholism that resulted from his military service in the U.S.-Vietnam war. Through the use of animals and symbolism, he examines his role as a member of the Wiyot nation and the oppression of his people. 

What I love most about Bartow’s work is the way he makes me feel. I love the unexpected identities his paintings reveal and how they force me to look at myself. I have seen some of his paintings numerous times, and with each viewing, I see something new. I contemplate my own traumas and vulnerability, as well as how I go about expressing them. Bartow’s work is uncomfortable, and that’s exactly why I love it.