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Interviews / August 8, 2014

Supersizing Prairie Gothic: The Art of Heather Benning

Most art activity is centred in urban environments. But 34-year-old Regina artist Heather Benning subverts that dynamic, creating large-scale art installations in the midst of rural areas. In 2007, for instance, Benning converted an abandoned Saskatchewan farmhouse into a life-sized dollhouse. In 2008, she installed a four-metre long replica of one of her tiny childhood toys in the prairie landscape. And this week, she debuted her first-ever Ontario installation—an homage to farm labour that has seen some 600 sculptures of hands installed in an old tobacco kiln in Norfolk County. Here, Benning chats via email and phone about her inspirations, installations, and insights into rural loss and change.

Leah Sandals: Most contemporary art activity is focused around urban centres—and when such art activity addresses specific sites, it tends to address ones that are urban. Why have you decided to focus in your practice on rural sites and architectures?

Heather Benning: I grew up on a farm in Saskatchewan. I was affected by my surroundings; when I was young, my parents would give me disused farm buildings for “play-houses.”

There was also an abandoned farmyard/house about a mile through the field on some land my father worked. In the summer months and on weekends, I would spend days exploring this yard and house, imagining what it was prior—who the people were, make up stories why they left. My sister and I would play “pioneer” based on the tales our grandmothers told us.

When I was 12, my father gave me the loft of the barn/shop there. I could have as much of the space as I wanted, and I took over about two-thirds of the space. I guess it was my first studio.

So the architecture from my childhood farm—as well as the subsequent loss of that farm when I was 17, when we decided to sell due to fear of a downturn in hog prices—greatly affected me, and all this shows up in my practice. Once I got my driver’s license I would take my “city” friends out on abandoned house-hunting tours.

I guess, simply put, I work within the vein that I am most familiar with.

That said, I am not interested in solely working with rural sites. I just feel that the rural is just as interesting [as the urban] and perhaps offers even more to explore because of its “otherness.” We have lost a connection to the rural, and by building/creating in these spaces, I attempt to bring it back into the psyche of urban dwellers.

We have to remember the rural. This is where our food comes from; this is where our energy comes from; this is what sustains us. Though it seems of little importance—out of sight, out of mind—it is most vital to our existence.

LS: One of the major works you completed in this rural vein was The Dollhouse, for which you transformed an old farmhouse into, well, a dollhouse. What inspired this project, and what reactions did you receive to it that surprised you?

HB: I was inspired by the building itself—which was perfectly built to become a dollhouse—as well its location. It was standing alone, seemingly in the middle of nowhere with very few trees, and just the occasional pumpjack and oil-truck activity.

The landscape surrounding the house, especially in later years of the project’s existence, changed rapidly, however. More and more pumps showed up, more and more oil activity and increased traffic.

So it was an obvious juxtaposition of what the prairie once was and what it is becoming—going from quaint, homely and silent into extensive oil activity, agribusiness, and the noise created from such activities.

LS: Your most recent project is Kil(n) Hand–your first project in Ontario—which focuses on a century-old tobacco kiln. What is the story of this kiln, and how did you decide to respond to it sculpturally?

HB: The use of the kiln was donated to me by the Stickl family, who run a second-generation family farm.

When I first arrived in Ontario last winter to research and check sites, I saw these abandoned kilns dotting the landscape, all in various stages of disrepair and collapse. They are very unique buildings with an elaborate grid system in the interior designed for hanging up to 1,200 bunches (or what are called sticks) of tobacco leaves for curing and drying.

As these building fall, we will eventually forget that they ever existed.

Also, at one time, every part of tobacco growing was done by hand. Now there’s more equipment and a completely different kiln system. But the hand is still very active in the production of tobacco; leaves are still hand picked in stages.

Given all this, I wanted to talk about importance of the hand in farming—about how there is a loss of the hand in farming, especially as the family farm disappears.

One aspect of Kil(n) Hand are sculptures of hands cast mainly from the Stickl family. I worked with the grandfather who first settled there, I think from Hungary. Then I worked with his son and his wife and their three children and spouses. I was able to cast the hands of a foreman and a couple of their other workers. I also cast my own hands, since a spent a lot of time in that kiln!

The resin hands, which are kind of tobacco coloured, are hung where the tobacco sticks or bunches would have been.

Also, I wanted to remove some of the outer walls so viewers could see the grid structure inside. I ended up choosing a kind of ripped pattern for the outer walls that graphs the decline of the family farm—from 200,000 family farms in Ontario in 1921 to 60,000 farms today.

Family-run farms have a more meaningful connection to the land and the crops they grow than agribusiness. I am not entirely opposed to agribusiness; I fully understand that we have to produce as much as we can for a little as we can to meet demands. The basic mantra to farming in this era seems to be “go big or get out.”

LS: Speaking of “going big,” can you tell me a bit more about Field Doll, that massive toy replica you installed first in rural, and now occasionally in urban and gallery, environments?

HB: It was based on this little doll I’ve had since I was about 2. I just scaled it up 13 times—because 13 is really the age you should stop having your doll around, but you still hide it under your pillow before your friends come over.

I never lost that doll myself, but I used to travel with it. When I moved to Halifax [for art school] I brought it and when I went to Scotland [for a master’s]. It would remind me of home.

Whenever Field Doll is shown [in a gallery], documentation is included of all the different spots it has been. And it is starting to get chipped up just like an old doll would.

Like The Dollhouse, Field Doll is kind of cheerful-coloured, but it’s all about change.

LS: What are the main challenges and rewards of doing the kind of large-scale rural installations you have become known for? I can imagine dealing with material breakdown from the elements is challenging.

HB: Challenges, I guess, are getting people from the urban sites to see the work. Though I don’t feel that is such an issue anymore, as the Internet has made communications so much easier and, in some ways, I think the documentation of the work lives more in kind of non-spaces like the Internet.

In terms of breakdown/the elements, my site-specific projects are temporal. I think a large part of the concept for these projects is the process of decay, of loss. When The Dollhouse structure was no longer safe, we burned it. I’m hoping Kil(n) Hand will stand for some years, but it’s really indefinite how it will hold up.

The rewards are that I get to embed myself in a community. Particularly with Kil(n) Hand, I got to meet with lots of people in the community about it before it was actually built. People share their stories with me. I get the opportunity and space to become very familiar with the structure, and I have time for contemplation.

LS: How much does this practice rely on the demise of rural life (for access to inexpensive or abandoned sites) at the same time as it hopes to pay homage to that life? How do you as an artist deal with those tensions?

HB: Using abandoned rural architecture relies on the demise of rural life. I wouldn’t call it “demise” though, but rather change.

There will always be something abandoned. The coal mines in Scotland, the towns that were once supported by the mines. As industry continually changes and “upgrades,” people are shifted and lives are left behind. Uranium City in northern Saskatchewan, for example, or logging towns in the interior of British Columbia.

Though Kil(n) Hand and Dollhouse speak more towards agriculture and its changes, in a broader aspect these projects are simply talking about the migration of people, “progress” and loss/change.

LS: What’s next for you? Is there anything else that you’d like people to be aware of when they consider Kil(n) Hand or one of your other works?

HB: Next, I will return to Saskatchewan. I have a flooded basement to sort out, and I’m going to harvest with my father—six years ago, he and my mom decided to go back to farming.

Field Doll and prints of The Dollhouse are being picked up and sent to the Kohler Arts Center in Wisconsin for a show in September, and I have another show in Estevan to install for October.

What I want people to consider? To examine, celebrate and mourn change. It is an integral part of the human experience.

Heather Benning’s Kiln Han(d), a project of the Norfolk Arts Centre, is on view indefinitely at 1823 Windham Rd. 7, Vanessa, Ontario. Note to the reader: This interview has been edited and condensed.

Leah Sandals

Leah Sandals is a writer and editor based in Toronto. Her arts journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star, National Post and Globe and Mail, among other publications, and her creative work has been published in Prism, Room and Freefall. She can be reached via