Indispensable: Ben Venom

"Indispensable" is a monthly series that asks the de Young’s Artists in Residence to explain a tool that they find essential to their work.
If the Sex Pistols had a sewing machine, it might have looked like this. 

Plastered with rock and roll stickers and sporting a needle made for leather, Ben Venom’s Juki F600 has even drawn some blood. “I’ve sewed through my fingers a few times,” says Venom. “It’s not pretty.”

The artist in residence in the Kimball Education Gallery through May 31, visitors can see Venom sewing quilts inspired by tattoo shops, motorcycle gangs, strip clubs and other venues he calls “the fringes of society.”  As a quilter, he needs a machine that’s able to wrestle with large amounts of fabric, versatile enough to handle his materials—leather, denim, upholstery fabric—and small enough to fit into his studio. 

“I have another machine, but it’s more like a sh—ty Honda Accord. This one is a suped-up Camero,” says Venom.  Like a muscle car, the machine starts with a dangerous purr and revs up to a machine gun cadence. And it can take a toll on his body. “It’s like driving a stick shift, and I can spend 14 hours a day on it. It caused an issue with my sciatic nerve and I couldn’t walk for 3 days.” 

Venom describes his work as a “collision between different ideas—hard and soft, masculine and feminine, good and evil.” The Juki F600 is ground zero for that collision. Setting aside the automotive metaphor, Venom calls on another mighty machine. “You know the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland? This is like a Sewing Machine Collider for me. It’s where energy is released.” 

“It sounds ridiculous when I say ‘You don’t know how dangerous this thing can be man,’ but it’s kind of true. And let’s face it, there’s a lot of ridiculousness in what I do. I hope it’s just ridiculous enough to circle all the way back around to genius.”

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