Prairie gothic artist Heather Benning on burning down the farmhouse

When she was a kid, artist Heather Benning used to play in an abandoned yard near her own family’s farm. There was a house on the uninhabited lot, and she’d play inside, looking at the items that had been left behind at least 20 years before. Perhaps it’s this memory — and the transforming, if not disappearing, farm culture from around her childhood home in Saskatchewan — that has inspired Benning’s eerie version of the prairie landscape.

Regina artist to show several installation works at Moose Jaw gallery

The Altar, 2013. Cedar, pine, chipboard, stain, oil paint, polyurethane plastic, fiberglass resin, polyester resin, glue, tin foil, silk flowers, wheat, yarn, wire, metal, Styrofoam, rocks, auto-body paste, apoxi-sculpt, paper. 255cm x 220cm x 61cm. (Courtesy the artist)

When she was a kid, artist Heather Benning used to play in an abandoned yard near her own family's farm. There was a house on the uninhabited lot, and she'd play inside, looking at the items that had been left behind at least 20 years before. Perhaps it's this memory — and the transforming, if not disappearing, farm culture from around her childhood home in Saskatchewan — that has inspired Benning's eerie version of the prairie landscape.

A Prairie Gothic, her show opening tonight at the Moose Jaw Art Gallery and Museum, includes several works that illuminate Benning's relationship with the landscape of her childhood. The Dollhouse, a film co-directed by Benning and Chad Galloway, documents the destruction of an installation the artist crafted in the Prairies. She turned a dilapidated farmhouse into a super-sized children's toy. With its neatly placed furniture and pastel walls, the installation was charming, yet haunting in its emptiness. It's also a comment on the changing nature of the farming industry. 

Saskatchewan artist Heather Benning in process, working on her mixed-media piece The Altar on her father's farm. 0:41

"I'm kind of talking about the end of the family farm era and how, as our fields expand more and more, people leave the country and move to the city," Benning says.

Earlier in her career, Benning worked on a project in Marysburg, Saskatchewan, that was ultimately vandalized. Like The Dollhouse, it was situated in a remote area. The artist didn't want the same thing to happen to The Dollhouse, so she planned from the beginning to destroy the project. Once the farmhouse was declared structurally unsound, she burned it down.

"It was the beginning of March, Chad Galloway and I staged the burn together and filmed it… I had three days with [the house] again. The night before we were going to burn it, I spent some time sitting in the house and kind of looking at it. It was a bit of a funeral to me, in some respects — the end of an era for that project.

"It's difficult, but I always knew from the beginning that I was going to get rid of it and that getting rid of it would be part of the art. It was the end and the death of the Dollhouse that made the full project exist."

Other works in Prairie Gothic include The Altar, a large, medieval-influenced sculpture  that tells the gruesome story of a farmhouse-burning and murder in the Prairies, and Work Hard, Be Nice, an installation consisting of sculptures of demure-looking girls and boys.

Work Hard Be Nice, 2014. Plastic, enamel, oil paint, wood. Dimensions variable (Courtesy the artist)

While these works reflect a stoicism and maybe even a sadness that comes with the rigour of farming life, they also seem imbued with optimism. Prairie life, Benning says, "is generally about loss, about leaving. But it's also about starting again."

Heather Benning. A Prairie Gothic: Let Our Fields Be Broader, But Our Nights So Much Darker opens tonight at the Moose Jaw Museum & Art Gallery, 461 Langdon Cr., Moose Jaw, Sask. To Jan. 3. Tue-Sun, noon-5pm. Free.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.