Benning’s art reflects on a changing rural Saskatchewan

ART by Gregory Beatty


Heather Benning: Rural Attractions
Slate Gallery
Until July 11

Family farms have gone the way of the proverbial dinosaur in Canada. As a child growing up on a farm near Humboldt, Heather Benning had a front row seat as the consolidation into larger-scale, more mechanized, operations unfolded. In fact, her parents were among those who gave up farming for a time.

Nevertheless, farming has been central to Benning’s practice since she became an artist.

Consider Dollhouse. It’s an abandoned two-story farm house Benning acquired near Sinclair, MB in 2005. After refurbishing it, she removed a wall and installed plexiglass so it resembled a dollhouse. It stood for eight years before becoming structurally unsafe for viewers, prompting Benning to ritually burn it.

Then there’s Field Doll — a 16-foot replica of a favourite childhood doll, which Benning carts around and photographs in abandoned farm yards.

Benning’s exhibition Rural Attractions opens on June 11. Ahead of that, I spoke with the artist about her fascination with the changing nature of rural life.

What works are you showing at Slate?

I’ll have the actual Field Doll, and photographs of it in different locations. Then there’s Kil(n) Hand, which I did in Simcoe, Ontario. And the Marysburg Project — it was a 24-foot woman built within the confines of an abandoned farmhouse, so her head is on the roof, her upper torso is in the second-floor landing and nursery, and she’s standing in the kitchen. I did that in Marysburg in 2004, so I was quite young.

I spent my high school years in Kindersley. We used to drive out to abandoned farm yards for bush parties. If there was a structure on the property, it would get torn down over the summer for bonfires.

Where I grew up, about a half-mile away, there was an abandoned farmyard. We used to go play in it as kids, much to our parents’ disapproval. I’d clean up the house and turn it into my own life-size dollhouse. Then when I got my licence I was all over the countryside with my friends looking for abandoned houses. It wasn’t for party purposes. There were clues left behind, and we’d try to figure out who the people were and why they left.

Do you see your work as a memento mori to the families who used to live there?

Some of the houses look quite sad. You have a notion that they left furniture and other things behind because they thought they’d return. But then they don’t return. Before I had my driver’s license, I thought I hated living on a farm. But the second we left it was quite a loss. So there was a sense of mourning in losing that lifestyle, and knowing that you can’t go home again.

When we think about agriculture we tend to think of men. But the role of women on the farm is a big part of your work.

I did that with the Marysburg Project for sure, and a bit with Dollhouse. For generations, the home has been the woman’s domain. But on a family farm… my grandmother had nine children. She kept them fed, and she also worked in the fields with the kids dragged behind in cardboard boxes. With the Marysburg Project, I wanted to make a large woman who was consumed by the house, but she was also consuming the house.

How did your most recent project Kil(n) Hand come about?

I did a two-part artist residency at the Norfolk Arts Centre. The curator Deirdre Chisholm did an excellent job of keeping me busy and got me quite involved in the community. While I was there I saw a lot of tobacco kilns. Some had been turned into sheds, but a lot of them were just left to fall down. I got a kiln from the Stickl family.

The leaves were all hand-picked — and they still are, a lot of times. They were tied in bunches by the women, then a kiln hand would dance around inside the kiln and hang the leaves and keep the fire going. First it was wood, then coal, now they’ve moved to natural gas to cook and dry the leaves.

As part of the work you made ceramic casts of Stickl family members’ hands and hung them in the kiln to represent the physical labour of farming?

Yeah. There are vegetable crops in the area too. A lot of Mexicans and Jamaicans work there. Before that, it was predominantly Quebecers and East Coasters who would come in. It was one of the few jobs that offered equal pay for men and women. I thought that was interesting.

When I saw your 2009 Dunlop Sherwood Village Gallery show I found Field Doll especially moving. It evokes the idea of a treasured toy accidentally left behind by a child when their family left the farm. Sometimes, it feels we exist simply to serve the economy. If the job market is soft, we’re expected to move elsewhere, and a lot of community bonds get destroyed in the process.

I’m definitely with you on that. There’s been a total breakdown of community. You live in Regina, you don’t know who your neighbours are. And you don’t really care to. I think there’s a loneliness now, especially with my generation. We’d rather be connected to a cell phone than talk to someone at the grocery store.