Ben Van Meter: Fifteen Minutes of Fame and a Lifetime of Creative Exploration

Ben Van Meter was born in Oklahoma in 1941. Twenty years later he moved away to San Francisco to study at San Francisco State College (today San Francisco State University), where he graduated with a B.A. in Film-Poetry in 1965. Van Meter achieved his ‘fifteen minutes of fame’ as an experimental filmmaker and light-show artist during the late 1960s. The North American Ibis Alchemical Company, formed with Roger Hillyard and others, was the resident show at the Avalon Ballroom throughout the Summer of Love, 1967. His first business card read, “Ben Van Meter, Odd Films, Curious Photographs, Light Shows.”

Ben Van Meter in 1967. Photograph by Thomas Weir
Ben Van Meter in 1967. Photograph by Thomas Weir

Van Meter and his wife Sandra were married at the Buddhist Temple in 1967 and moved to the country in 1968. He taught filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute from 1968 to 1979 and received an M.F.A. degree in 1974. Ben and Sandra raised three children in the old Bloomfield Schoolhouse near Petaluma, California, and worked in horticulture during the 1980s. From 1990 to 2014 Van Meter conducted karma yoga in various group homes and vocational programs serving abused and emotionally disturbed children. He was also general manager of the Alturas Community Theater from 2000 to 2007. His play Lost River, the Story of the Modoc Indian War was produced four times as an outdoor drama by the Modoc County Arts Council.

Through the decades Van Meter’s films have occasionally been presented in museums, film classes, and screened at special events. However, his light shows and the hundreds of photographic slides he produced for the North American Ibis Alchemical Company shows have not been seen publicly for more than forty years. In 2014 Van Meter suffered a stroke and retired in North Lakeport, California. While recovering he met collector and activist, John Lyons, who persuaded him to begin the process of scanning and printing his 35mm slide collection, and putting his films on DVD. Lyons also advised Van Meter to consider working on a book. All of this renewed activity resulted in Van Meter’s participation in the de Young Museum’s exhibition, The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll. The exhibition features three installations of Van Meter’s work; a slide show, a continuous projection of his 1966 film, San Francisco Trips FestivalAn Opening, and a A Light Show Trip-tych, which was created as a special commission for the exhibition. The end result for a public audience is a renewed appreciation of Van Meter’s boldly innovative and deeply rooted contribution to the art of experimental film and light show performance in the 1960s.

Images from Ben Van Meter’s “Rebirth of a Nation”
Images from Ben Van Meter’s “Rebirth of a Nation”

Coinciding with the de Young Museum’s groundbreaking exhibition, The Summer of Love Experience: Art, Fashion, and Rock & Roll, Van Meter has launched a Kickstarter campaign (through September 1, 2017) to help produce a limited edition, high quality edition of his book, Rebirth of a Nation - A Summer of Love Tribute.

Rebirth of a Nation is a color photo book of Van Meter’s ”Curious Photographs" taken while immersed in the cultural scene of 1960s San Francisco. Included are anecdotal recollections of his life and times, the making of his “Odd Films” and the history of the North American Ibis Alchemical Company, a unique light show akin to an improvisational jazz combo. Van Meter’s text asserts his contention that: "The sixties in San Francisco weren't just about sex and drugs and rock and roll."  Also included are interviews with surviving artist members of his Light Show, The North American Ibis Alchemical Company. The celebrated artist Bruce Conner is represented by eight hand painted mandala slides which he produced for the Ibis. A Foreword is also provided by is by Julian Cox, Chief Curator and Founding Curator of Photography at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Click here to support the Kickstarter campaign.