I was sitting in Stacia Verigin’s living room in Saskatoon when she asked if I knew of Heather Benning’s work. She said that Heather should be back in the country by now after finishing her MFA in Edinburgh. Heather’s family farm was about an hour outside of Saskatoon.
I had previously seen images of the life-sized Dollhouse (2007) in Redvers, located just off the highway in southwestern Manitoba. The images, which had been made available via online news sources, would mark the first time I had seen one of Heather’s realizations. There was great general interest in her transformation of an abandoned house into a life-sized dollhouse. “They would all be big works early on, to fill up all this space we have,” she would later explain to me.
She realized that big works didn’t make sense in Edinburgh. She told stories through life-sized figurative sculptures instead. They were well received, and she showed in some group shows before coming back to Saskatchewan.
I would first visit the Benning farm after visiting with Leesa Streifler at her cottage studio in Craven. I followed a hand drawn map in my rental car to the town of Nokomis, and then west towards Venn. Two ginger husky dogs named Bob and Chuck came wagging towards me as I parked near the grain bins. We went inside together to the back of the enormous equipment shed where Heather kept her studio. Next to the giant farm machinery more than a storey high, her works did not seem out of place at all.
Heather’s sister, Sheri, is a writer who spent some time at the University of Alberta. In their own ways, they are both telling the untold stories of their home. “Home” is a loaded word. We often relate to it through comfort, through loss. Home is where we make our first discoveries and tragedies; and home refers to where we belong.
As I pulled out of their front yard in a hatchback, the vehicle started to spin out, the back tires sinking into the melting snow. Larry, Heather’s father, came out of the house to lend me a hand. He gave me a new set of directions to get back onto the main highway rather than back to Craven. I followed the train tracks rendered near invisible by snow and wind. I came up and over a small gravel hill and missed the turn off onto an unmarked paved road. There are not enough signs in rural Saskatchewan, but I suspected I had just missed the highway. Even though I had seen no other vehicles, I drove farther in and pulled a U-turn. The car tires sank again and this time there was no one around to help. There were no buildings in sight, and no vehicles would pass. There was only 360 degrees of flatness, bright white and wind blown. I pushed to no avail and my heart sank with the tires. I looked up and took in what was around me. I started walking towards the horizon and not the highway. With every other step, the snow was deeper than my knees. I felt nothing but fear and freedom in that moment of absolute solitude. Isolation is an experience as much as inspiration. There are no signs in Saskatchewan except for these signs.
With special thanks to The Saskatchewan Arts Board for their generous support towards the creation of this project.