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How to Make an Anarchist Quilt

Ben Venom's riotous quilted works mash up skulls, Harley flames, and rainbows.


Venom prefers to work with donated and recycled fabric. “You’ve heard of Picasso’s Blue Period?” he jokes. “This is Ben Venom’s Rainbow Period.”

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Venom often creates wearable art in the form of quilted jackets, vests, and hats. “Our DNA is in our clothing,” he says.

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I Am the Night Rider, a 58-by-47-inch quilt.

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After an initial sketch, Venom manipulates his design in Photoshop to create a quilt stitch.

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Then he slices up the pattern like a puzzle using fabric shears.

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Though he learned to quilt on an inexpensive Brother XL2610, Ben Venom eventually upgraded to this high-end Japanese model. “It was the equivalent of trading in a shitty Honda Accord for a souped-up, bitchin’ Camaro,” he says.

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In 2008, artist Ben Venom taught himself to quilt by reading Quilting 101: A Beginner’s Guide, a spiral-bound primer filled with instructions for making pot holders and seasonal table runners. But Venom’s quilts aren’t exactly Ladies’ Home Journal material: They’re all about crime, gambling, metal, and drugs. “My art is a collision of fine art crafting and the fringes of society,” he says. “I’m riding that razor’s edge.”

A product of the ’90s punk scene in Atlanta, Venom moved to San Francisco in 2004 to study printmaking. In the ensuing years, his art has progressed into riotous quilted works—as large as 13 by 15 feet—all machine-sewn on a $1,000 Juki HZL-F600. “When it’s running full speed, it’s kind of like shooting an automatic weapon,” Venom says. 

His pieces are a mash-up of iconography: heavy metal skulls, Harley-Davidson flames, Mexican cartel blood drops, and hippie-dippy rainbow-streaked hearts. He embraces the disconnect between his anarchic art and the quaint quilting tradition. “I love a high level of ridiculousness,” he says. The works are sewn from donated clothing, a mountainous supply of which reaches the ceiling in his Haight-Ashbury studio.

Following an artist residency at the de Young last year (during which he busied himself sewing patches onto museum-goers’ jackets, pro bono), he’s exhibiting in the Museum of Craft and Design’s current show, Constructed Communication, up through August 7. Though Venom occasionally accepts commissions—he just completed a triptych for Google’s offices—he’s choosy about those he takes on. “I prefer to be given free rein,” he says. “I think like a tattoo artist: You’re only as good as your last tattoo.”

Originally published in the May issue of
San Francisco

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