by Laura Hutson
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.
Pictures from the class by Michael Bunch are below.