Dream Weaver: This Guy's Quilts ROCK!

Originally published on May 23, 2012 11:27 am

If you were a metal-head in a past life, you probably have a collection of concert t-shirts stashed away somewhere.

Maybe you use that prized souvenir from Pantera's Cowboys From Hell tour to polish your vintage 1981 Pontiac Firebird.

A San Francisco artist who goes by the name Ben Venom has come up with an unusual use for those old heavy metal shirts — he sews them into quilts.

And the results are on exhibit in galleries in the Bay Area and Birmingham, England.

Venom (a.k.a. Ben Baumgartner) tells weekends on All Things Considered guest host Laura Sullivan that he was inspired by a 2006 quilt show at San Francisco's de Young Museum, featuring works from rural Alabama. "I was completely blown away by the architecture of the quilts, the handmade nature of them, and probably [for] over 130 years they've been making these quilts," he says.

Those quilters — from the community of Gee's Bend — used scraps of fabric from around their homes, including old clothes.

Venom says his concert T's were logical materials because "they've been lying around my closet for years. Like my Testament shirt was completely threadbare; you could see my nipples through it," he says, "It's not very heavy metal to wear that out in public."

Venom displayed his first quilt at a museum in Berlin, Germany, back in 2008. He said, if nothing else, the quilt was easy to transport because he could just fold it up and carry it with him on the plane.

Making subtle references to the heavy metal scene are a point of pride for Venom. He once put T-shirts featuring Megadeth and Metallica on the opposite sides of a quilted cross. Venom says he did it because Megadeth's guitarist, Dave Mustaine, had been kicked out of Metallica.

"Just from someone to go and see it in the gallery, you probably wouldn't pick up on that," he says, "but if you're a metal head, you would immediately recognize what's going on there."

And concert T-shirts aren't cheap. "A vintage Black Sabbath shirt can go for $100 or $80," he says. His quilts have incorporated up to 120 different T-shirts and fetch as much as $8,000.

Unfortunately, Venom's personal collection of shirts is tapped out. Most of the ones he uses now are are donated by friends in metal bands.

"These are shirts they wore out in public, or when they were on tour with their band, and they played with these other bands and they exchanged T-shirts," he says, adding, "It's great because the quilt is not just mine; it's ours."

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LAURA SULLIVAN, Host:

If you were a metalhead in a past life, you probably have a collection of concert T-shirts stashed away somewhere. Maybe you use that prize souvenir from Pantera's Cowboys from Hell tour as a rag to polish your vintage, 1981 Pontiac Firebird.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: Well, there might be another use for those old concert T's. Maybe a quilt?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: A few years ago, a guy in San Francisco named Ben Venom started taking his T-shirts and sewing them into quilts. And now, they're on display in art galleries in San Francisco and in Birmingham, England. And Ben Venom joins us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Ben, welcome to the program.

BEN VENOM: Oh, thank you.

SULLIVAN: You're a huge heavy metal fan and a quilter.

VENOM: Yeah. It works.

SULLIVAN: What inspired you to start making quilts?

VENOM: Well, in 2006, I saw a quilting show at de Young Museum here in San Francisco, the Gee's Bend quilt show, and they are from a very rural part of Alabama. And I'm originally from Atlanta, Georgia. And so I kind of, you know, figured this was something that is close to my home, having lived out here for a couple of years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAMA, I'M COMING HOME")

OZZY OSBOURNE: (Singing) Mama, I'm coming home.

VENOM: I was completely blown away by the architecture of the quilts, the handmade nature of them. And probably like, over like, 130 years they've been making these quilts.

SULLIVAN: Why did you decide to use your concert T-shirts?

VENOM: Well, they've been lying around in my closet for years. Like, my Testament shirt was completely threadbare. You could see my nipples through it. It's not very heavy metal to wear that out in public, I thought, so I was trying to figure out something to do with them. And I had a show coming up in Berlin, Germany, so I decided to kind of mix the two. And it worked out great.

SULLIVAN: Do you every have any quilts that just don't work? I don't know, maybe Blue Oyster Cult and Slayer just don't get along on a quilt?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

VENOM: Yeah. I mean, there are some that like, you know, some bands that would not be too happy that they're on the quilt together. A good example is - the first quilt I made is called Listen to Heavy Metal While You Sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VENOM: On one side, the design is a skull that turns into an inverted cross. So on the cross, one side is Megadeth; the other side is Metallica. So now Dave Mustaine, who plays in Megadeth, used to play in Metallica, but they kicked him out. So they're on opposite ends of the cross. Just from like, someone to go and see it in the gallery, you probably wouldn't pick up on that. But if you're a metalhead, you would immediately recognize what's going on there.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CRAZY TRAIN")

OSBOURNE: (Singing) All aboard. Ha ha ha ha ha ha haaaa.

SULLIVAN: Can you sell these heavy metal quilts?

VENOM: Yes.

SULLIVAN: How much do you sell them for?

VENOM: Well, they're roughly the same size, and they're about eight feet by eight feet, those go for about $3,500. But then the one that's the monster, it's 13 feet by 15 feet, so I think that one is probably like around $8,000.

SULLIVAN: That's a lot.

VENOM: But, you know - well, you know, you've got to keep in mind that a lot of the shirts on these quilts are, you know, vintage shirts. Like, you know, a vintage Black Sabbath shirt can just go for, alone, like $100.

SULLIVAN: Are you going to run out of shirts at some point?

VENOM: I pretty much have. A lot of the shirts were donated from friends of mine that play in bands. These are shirts that they wore out in public, or when they were on tour with their band and like, they played with these other bands and they exchanged T-shirts. And so it's great because a quilt is not just mine. It's ours.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SULLIVAN: That's heavy metal quilter Ben Venom. If you're in the Bay area, you could see his quilts on display at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. You can also see a slideshow of his work at our website, npr.org. Ben, thanks so much for talking with us.

VENOM: Oh, thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.