Ben Venom is a badass quilter. I had the opportunity to visit his studio in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury and see his fine German threads, boxes of old leather jackets, and mountains of used jeans and T-shirts used to craft these massive quilts. Full of occult symbology, each one could be a cozy centerpiece for a satanic ritual. Venom earned his nickname as a teenager, and he is a self-taught, one-man show with a standard sewing machine, whose upcycled art represents his community and his subcultural interests. These mega-quilts are a trifecta of fine art, craft and function, with a heavy dose of punk rock. For this interview, I started with the tough questions. —Kristin Farr
Kristin Farr: Your work exists as fine art, craft and functional object, so you get an interesting cross-section of feedback.
Ben Venom: I would say it’s a few different worlds. Fine art is where I come from, then the crafting world, and what I call the fringes of society, which is where I draw my inspiration from. That references motorcycle gangs and their insignias, punk rock, heavy metal, the occult, mysticism and folk art. Separately and more recently, I’m interested in this idea of function versus anti-function within art. One reason why I’m making this work is because I was making prints in grad school and they didn’t serve a purpose beyond making aesthetically pleasing pieces, which is fine. But I had a crisis of consciousness at some point and thought maybe I should go into social services, though I realized that would be a nightmare for me. So I decided to make functional art, and at the end of the day, even if you don’t like what I’m doing, it’s still functional and serves a purpose in the world. You can wear it, you can use it at night for warmth or a pillow. It’s multi-faceted.
It occurred to me to ask why you don’t just paint these images, but I realized quilts are meaningful in a different way because they get handed down.
They get passed down in a family more so than a painting. It’s a different dynamic. I have a top layer of a quilt that my grandmother hand-embroidered and I’m planning to finish it off. She’s passed away now, but it will be cool to work on it. Again, that relates to this community thing, and also family ties. This idea of functionality is really important to me.
My last solo show, Let’s Go All The Way, was a departure from some of my other shows because I’m using different materials like goat skin and pushing the boundaries of what I can use. It’s still functional, but do you really want to wrap yourself in goat skin or some kind of rough, plasticky fabric? And a huge quilt is also kind of anti-functional because it’s even too big for Shaquille O’Neal.
True, but it would be cool to see him napping under one of your quilts. Any other fabric manipulations you’re working with these days?
Besides the bleached denim, I’ve used some Rit dye, but I don’t want to go too tie-dye although we’re in the Haight Ashbury, and of course you’re influenced by your surroundings. A lot of the material I use is repurposed material. San Francisco is extremely progressive: we banned plastic bags and we recycle fabric.
What’s interesting to me when I use recycled materials is that people are giving me stuff they wore that meant something to them. There are personal memories that now live on in my work. I’ve used all types of material from people that I call my community, and when they see the work, it’s like a large puzzle of everyone’s personal memories sewn together in the form of a functional piece of artwork.