Black metal, satanic imagery and biker-gang iconography are all subjects that San Francisco–based artist Ben Venom (a.k.a. Ben Baumgartner) lovingly transforms into quilts. Yes, quilts. How exactly did a metalhead with an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute gravitate toward the methods of your great-grandma’s sewing circle?
As a graduate student in 2006, Venom saw an exhibit of works by the legendary African American quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama, in which scraps of clothing were sewn into bold geometric patterns. He says he was inspired by the craftsmanship and by the idea of up-cycling. Applying his own interests to the medium, he arrived at a body of work he describes as a “collision.” Venom says, “I combine various macho, loud and disparate elements of culture with the relatively soft and functional medium of textiles. I turn it up to 11 and push it past the red.” Instead of using folksy ornamentation and calico quilting patterns, Venom mostly works with recycled scrap fabric and concert T-shirts purchased online.
In his I Am the Night Rider, a skeleton holding a flaming torch in one hand and in the other a frayed American flag, its stars replaced by a pair of rolling dice, rides on the back of a racing wolf. Sewn-together bits of Harley-Davidson T-shirts and tie-dyed material flesh out the body of the wolf, while the entire piece maintains the symmetry and composition of classic patchwork quilting.
Into other pieces, Venom stitches rallying cries and outsider credos such as “Live fast,” “Don’t tread on me” and “Fly by night” and makes playful use of iconic figures including Hello Kitty and the Playboy Rabbit Head. His work has been shown nationally and internationally, yet Venom constructs each of his pieces to be practical and durable. He contends that his quilts, while decorative as well as thought-provoking, are still functional. “When hell freezes over,” Venom says, “the beasts of metal will have a warm blanket to sleep with.”