Thursday, June 21, 2012

Don't Be A Square: Lessons I Learned From Ben Venom's Heavy Metal Quilting Class

Posted By on Thu, Jun 21, 2012 at 1:35 PM

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  • Photo courtesy of the Frist

Roy Blount Jr. wrote that you have to leave the South in order to really understand it. Ben Venom told me that. He may have been paraphrasing, but I get the sentiment — I never really felt all that Southern until I moved to New York. But once I really settled into Yankee territory, I realized that my Southernness was one of the first things people identified me by, and I just sort of went with it. I kept the fact that I was a terrible Southerner, at least by the standards of a lot of my friends and family back home, to myself. (I don't like sweet tea, I never ate cornbread or biscuits and gravy growing up, and I say things like “sneakers” and “soda.") I started exaggerating the country life I had lived, imagining a hometown that was much more quaint and rural than my run-of-the-mill, strip-mall and Walmart, midsized Bible Belt hometown really was, and I wedged in anecdotes about how I came from a dry county and bought bottles of booze from a bootlegger at just about every opportunity. (See how I did that?)

But when I decided to leave New York for Nashville a few years ago, I got very serious about reclaiming my Southern roots. I ditched Grizzly Bear and LCD Soundsystem and started listening almost exclusively to Silver Jews and Lucinda Williams. I pushed all my cute silky dresses aside and broke out thrifted plaid button-ups I'd been carrying around since high school. I started drinking out of mason jars, and even developed a (sort of forced) appreciation for iced tea. And I got an almost instinctual urge to do completely out-of-character stuff like garden and pick berries and make quilts.

So when I read that Ben Venom was coming to town to talk about the quilts he makes out of old heavy metal T-shirts, and that he'd be teaching a class on quilt-making while he was here, I was practically foaming at the mouth. Not only is he an amazing quilter, but he's subversive! There are boobs and pentagrams all over his work! And even better — he's from Georgia, you guys. Don't let that “San Francisco-based” moniker fool you. He's an expat Southerner, just like I was. Surely this was a teacher I was meant to learn from.

Still, I'm a terrible sewer. Or I would be, if I ever actually sewed. I gave it up somewhere around 2002, which was also roughly the same time that I began. Expectations were low, and self-standards were just about as unattainably high as they ever were. But I had this absolutely incredible fabric that I bought at an African textile shop on Flatbush Avenue that I'd been saving for just such an occasion. Imagine a pale blue cloth printed with a traditional African graphic, then embellished with cameos of President Obama and little banners proclaiming “YES WE CAN” scattered everywhere. Oh yes. I did.

So last Friday, I showed up at the Frist for my first day of class. We were led through the current exhibit of Gee's Bend quilts, and Ben told us that a similar exhibit had played a big part in his foray into quilt-making — when he was trying to figure out what to do with the collection of metal T-shirts he'd amassed through his years of hesherhood, he recalled the Gee's Bend quilts he'd seen in Atlanta, and inspiration struck. I tried to soak up as much of my own inspiration from those messy, gorgeous, love-worn relics as I could before we headed over to Watkins to set up our machines. Anticipation abounded.

Ben led the class like a pro — he's goofy but biting, like a punk rock Charlie Day. The class was small — there were nine of us total, plus Kim from the Frist and Stephanie from Watkins — which was the perfect size for this kind of project. Small enough to load attention onto novices who needed help with everything from threading bobbins (Me: “What's a bobbin?”) to rethreading the same bobbin after I realized I'd done it wrong. Large enough to give us an enjoyable variety of personalities — an elementary school art teacher, a retired woman from New York (we bonded), and a Three Crow Bar bartender, to name a few.

By the end of the first day, I'd done a lot of seemingly inane tasks that, honestly, were still kind of abstract in my mind. I realized that I was going to have to learn how to make a quilt through the process of actually making it, which means I would have no idea what the hell I was doing until after I'd done it, at which point it would be too late to redo it all. I was disappointed that the masterwork I'd envisioned wouldn't be the instantly gratifying manifestation I'd been hoping for, but then I reminded myself, in a very Fred Rogers-sounding voice, that I was going to be OK no matter what.

And now, I know how to quilt! I'm a quilt-maker! I came up with a design, turned it into templates, traced the templates onto fabric, stitched that fabric onto other fabric, put puffy quilting material inside, and stitched the whole thing up! Just like my great-grandma would have done. Except for the Barack Obama fabric. And the pot references from the teacher. And the class-wide Danzig-ripping. And the constant cursing. But I'm sure Granny Hutson would have been right there with me, doing something much more authentically Southern than I ever could, probably with a glass of sweet tea.

My quilt
  • My quilt

Pictures from the class by Michael Bunch are below.

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