No other genre has stayed as true to its artistic roots as metal. There’s a whole legion of T-shirts and album covers featuring mighty carnivorous creatures and glowering skulls and freakin’ heroic dudes mid-shred. In the Bay Area, we have some of the most recognizable metal iconography in the world thanks to Metallica, Exodus, Testament, Sleep, and High on Fire. It’s the kinda stuff that makes you think of triumphant guitar solos and blasphemous sonic aggression. It also makes me think of bedding.
I can’t help it. Ever since meeting Ben Baumgartner (aka Ben Venom – the best nickname ever, earned from being a bit of a shit talker as a kid) every time I see a particularly gnarly heavy metal logo, I wonder if it’s made it onto one of his legendary quilts. The good ol’ Georgia boy has made a name for himself in this city by handcrafting the kind of detailed blankets mothers show off at craft fairs. But snuggling into Ben’s bedding (and his screen-printed Lucifer pillows) means nestling up against some hard rockin’ nightmares.
Ben, by the way, doesn’t have a colorful spread on his bed. At least not when I show up a week before the opening of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' prestigious Bay Area Now 6 exhibit, which includes a wall of Ben’s work. I arrive with Margo Mortiz to shoot the pad he shares with artist Kevin E. Taylor behind the Kilowatt. His mattress is stored in its usual day spot – shoved vertically into his closet, a situation he says his girlfriend isn’t exactly stoked about. But while he was working on his giant 155" x 175" quilt for the show there was no concern for feng shui. It was all about accommodating the brand new, bitchin’ Juki F600 computerized sewing and quilting machine, the intricately stitched heavy metal vests he also made for the Yerba Buena show, and the loudest-looking bedding in the universe.
As Electric Wizard plays on the stereo in the background, Margo and I help Ben carefully unfold "See You on the Other Side," his pièce de résistance for BAN6 (he was one of only 17 visual artists invited to be part of the museum’s triennial showcase). The quilt, which required cutting up 125 different shirts, many of which were donated by the bagful from friends and bands, took Ben five months to complete. It’s so big he wasn’t able to see this scowling medusa laid out until he spread it across the floor at Guerrero Gallery. (Guerrero is where I first came upon his work, two smaller metal quilts called "Am I Demon?" and "Don't Wake Me Lucifer," in a show there last year.)
In Ben’s bedroom, we’re careful not to step on his stitching – which he learned, kid you not, from a book called Quilting 101 in 2008. He got his MFA from the SF Art Institute in 2007 but he taught himself quilting after being wowed by the Quilts of Gee’s Bend show at the de Young in 2006. Ben’s a wry guy and he laughs at himself as he gives us the title of his intro tome. He adds that Quilting 101 is “totally legit.”
Also totally legit? The Walnut Creek Sewing Machine Shop where he got his machine, dude. The old ladies there love him. And more crafters around the country will soon be throwing horns when Ben’s work is featured in an upcoming issue of Quilt Life magazine. What other artist can brag about being featured both in that publication and Thrillist? Ben tells me he gets off on dabbling in opposing worlds.
His day jobs definitely have him straddling some social schisms – especially his gig setting up chairs for Sunday school at a church, sometimes after being up the night before with activities that are more hesher than holy. “If anyone’s going to hell,” he jokes, “I’m high on the list.”
It’s this existence between communities that makes Ben interesting as a local character and as an artist. He’s part of the rising tide of talent that’s come out of SFAI and CCA in recent years. At YBCA, when we tour the BAN6 exhibit together, he points out all his school buddies who are also included in the show. Ben also shows at such cutting-edge local galleries as Guerrero and Ever Gold, and made his first quilt for a group show in Berlin in 2008. And his DIY crafter aesthetic – which also includes embroidery, albeit one piece is of a bitten-off dove’s head, bro – fits with San Francisco’s current maker fascination.
He came up in a different universe altogether, the Atlanta punk scene in the ’90s, and his tastes and alliances cross over from the punk world too. He boasts that the stitching for his metal vests is done at shops that do work for local motorcycle gangs. He also speaks reverently about the Russian Criminal Tattoo Encyclopedia that influences his own work – like his tatted up Hands of Doom pillows.
Ben talks of the local bands he loves, and whose shirts he uses in his work, with affection – Saviours, Black Cobra, Walken, High on Fire, Giant Squid, Early Graves. But he also sees the humor in the imagery metal bands use in general. “Metal is like Nascar or monster trucks – it’s ridiculous,” he observes with a snicker.
The more you get to know Ben, the richer the juxtapositions – and the more smart-ass the quips. (Just ask him about some of the awesome punch lines for the boiled peanuts company, Dee's Nuts , he runs with Kevin.) This juggling of high and no-brow art and music makes me appreciate his style all the more.
At Yerba Buena, we discuss the Sept. 22 live show he’s curating for the museum. Black Cobra, Walken, and Hightower, all great acts, are supposedly playing in front of his quilt, bringing life to the slivers of visual mayhem tucked into his designs. He’s not sure where the bands are actually going to set up, and he worries about a “bunch of metal dudes in an art gallery” not used to standing still and being polite when they’re surrounded by white walls. But I imagine if they’re buddies with Ben, they’ll chuckle at the contrast and get on with the rockin’, much like the rest of us Venom fans.
For your viewing pleasure, an exclusive Bold Italic video of Ben Venom at his church gig, "Iron Maid in the House of the Lord," by Kevin. E. Taylor.