Heather Benning* is walking up my front steps and I’m not sure what to expect. I’ve invited her to my house for coffee because I heard she was in town doing studio visits with visual artists, but I’m not a visual artist and all of a sudden I’m wondering why I volunteered to host her. But here she is, on the other side of the front door window, so I can’t back out now. I unlock the door and throw it open with the warmest smile I can muster.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” I say as she steps inside. This isn’t really a lie. I am glad she’s here even though I don’t exactly know why she’s here. My strategy to avoid any potential awkwardness is to ask her questions about her herself and her art. I’ve learned this works in almost any situation, as people generally love talking about themselves, and I’m usually genuinely interested. And in this particular case that won’t be a problem. I’d heard about Heather erecting a life-size doll house in an abandoned farm house years earlier and my curiosity is already piqued. Plus, she’s an internationally successful artist who chooses to practice in rural Saskatchewan which, in itself, is enough conversational fodder.
“Come in,” I say leading her to my kitchen table. We pass the four paintings Belén and I created, of a tree in each season, and then the aqua canvas with the letters h-o-m-e that Susanna designed (at age 3) and I painted. Finally Heather pulls out a chair and I cringe at her choice. When she sits down she’ll be looking straight at the painting my husband I made 15 years ago. The one of a too-skinny girl playing a violin, with a teapot pouring liquid from the sky, inspired by a Leonard Cohen song.
I clear my throat. I’m nervous she might notice all the homemade artwork and assume we want her to engage in a professional critique of our novice attempts. “Did Don, the director of the art gallery, tell you what I do? That I’m not a visual artist?” I ask her.
“Oh yes. I looked at your website last night,” Heather says.
I let out a sigh of relief.
“Tell me about Wonderscape,” she says. “How did it start?”
She opens up her notebook, leans forward with her pen poised and suddenly, instead of interviewing her I’m launching into my own story: why I started Wonderscape, who it’s for, who comes, what happens, how many times I’ve applied for grants, how many times I’ve been declined grants and how many more times I should apply for grants. She asks a slew of questions. Where are you advertising? How do you feel about the time you’re putting into this? What about your own personal craft?
I tell her about my writing and my goals. She gives me names of artists who might be interested in Wonderscape. We talk about promotion strategies. She suggests organizations and galleries who might help me. And this is how it goes for an hour and a half; it is an unexpected gift. Now I realize why she is here. She explains her mandate– to connect with rural artists, visit them where they work, understand their barriers, help them network and give them ideas and support–but it’s already obvious to me. If empowerment is one of her target outcomes, she is bang on today.
This feeling, elicited by a visit with a Very Important Artist who works with a Very Important Organization, is a bit of a novelty for me. Often I feel the opposite. Which, I am learning, comes with the territory of making something new from the ground up. When I make cold-calls to artists, newspapers, radio stations or people that have never heard of Wonderscape, I scramble for the right words, grasping for a foothold in the conversation.
But this morning at my table it’s different. And the one thought that keeps returning to me is this is what I want Wonderscape to be like. May it be a place for artists to mentor and propel each other onward. Whether through hands-on experiences (like working on a large soapstone carving or making music together), or by simply asking others about their practices, suggesting contacts, being willing to make introductions and dreaming together.
So this fall, can we be Heather Benning for each other? Can we listen? Can we help each other prioritize? Can we exchange ideas and generate new ones? Can we give feedback and insight? Can we celebrate what is powerful and moving and life-giving in each other’s work? Can we encourage each other to keep going?
I’ve been working for weeks to curate an experience where this might be possible. Where makers can collaborate. I’ve spent sleepless nights thinking about who would be just the right artist-in-residents, how to format an Art Mash-Up or when we should eat on Saturday evening. The stage is set. All I need now is a whole bunch of Heather Benning-ish people to come. Will you join us?**
*Heather Benning is a travelling mentor with CARFAC Saskatchewan. She completed a bachelor of fine arts arts degree from Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in 2004, and a master of sculpture at Edinburgh College of Art in 2009. Between her degrees Benning returned to Saskatchewan, where she completed several large-scale, site-specific installations. She has had numerous solo and group shows throughout Canada and abroad. Heather’s work has been reviewed in Canadian Art magazine, Sculpture magazine, Galleries West, Espace, Uppercase Magazine, Studio Magazine, The Paris Review, and The Nation Post, among others.
If you want to discuss your art practice with a dynamic professional who understands the challenges and rewards of working in Saskatchewan contact CARFAC SASK for more information or to arrange a visit: email@example.com.
**Check out www.wonderscape.org for to start planning for it!
NOTE: Heather is not involved or affiliated with Wonderscape. This post was meant to honour her, not implicate her. 🙂