Inviting Us Home

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All images from Heather Benning’s site here

I loved this article in the Daily Mail Online yesterday about Heather Benning’s The Dollhouse. Heather, whilst acting as an Artist in Residence for Redvers, Saskatchewan, found this abandoned, derelict farmhouse nearby and realised it held the seeds for a powerful artistic project of her own making.

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As Heather found it

She would gradually transform the derelict building into a dollhouse to capture the late sixties when it had last been inhabited. In Heather’s vision, it’s a life-sized dollhouse that evokes our awareness and memories of a not-too distant past, landscape and way of life. One which of course we can never go back to, but calls to all of us of childhood and sense of home.

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Kitchen before, and

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Kitchen in Heather’s realisation: the period furniture, the wall phone, all so perfectly sixties

She obviously worked incredibly hard to realise her vision, and The Dollhouse has been featured in exhibitions across Canada and is now situated for any who wish to see it alongside Highway 2 in Manitoba, near the Saskatchewan border. I would love to be able to walk right up to it and peer through the plexiglass back at the suspended life inside. There is so much that is evocative here.

Heather’s sister Sheri has written movingly about their childhood in rural Saskatchewan and the genesis of The Dollhouse here:

Whenever she’s asked why she embarked on the Dollhouse, Heather’s modest reply is that she wants people to think about these abandoned homes. She excavated layers of dwelling to render visible for us all those unthought potencies that engender a deep sense of place. From the grid road the exterior of the house looks abandoned, but walk through the overgrown rhubarb plants to the back of the
house and laid bare behind the plexiglass is a worn cooking pot on the kitchen stove, starched lace curtains, children’s books stacked on a windowsill, a blue-boy figurine atop a bedroom bureau, skates hanging in the entrance, a nightshirt on a bedframe post. And for a moment, as we view Heather’s Dollhouse, we become-child. Heather’s Dollhouse invites us home, asks us to take our shoes off at the door, have a cup of tea at the formica kitchen table. One evening, just after dusk, Heather and I lit the house with a borrowed generator. The rooms filled with lamplight and shadows cast by these gathered remnants of domesticity. Though we didn’t speakit, the refrain ‘holiness’ came to mind.

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Nearing completion

My deeply felt connection with this piece of work comes, I believe, from my own family history. My father, staying in England after his service with the RCAF in WW2, grew up on what must have been a typical prairie wheat farm in the 20s and 30s near Kipling, Saskatchewan. When we first visited as a family in 1966, I was only just 4 years old, but I do remember being taken to see the old homestead out on the prairie. Another family lived in it then. My grandparents were already retired, and the children who had remained in Saskatchewan to farm had their own land and farmsteads. Indeed, by the time my family left England to emigrate to Canada in 1977, all the family had “got out” of farming, and I never remember us driving out that way again even when my Dad was still alive. Still, on that first visit, my father and his siblings were eager to see “the old place” and lots of stories were told of their childhood with my overall impression being that my father’s childhood had been a very hard and dangerous time.

The interior must have looked a lot like the one Heather imagined in her inspired choice of 60s furnishings. Our old homestead was bigger and had numerous additions and porches. I think every time another child was born my grandfather built on another room. There were eventually 10 children who survived childhood.

As I’ve said, I haven’t been back there since, but I imagine the house has long been abandoned and left to tumble down like so many others. I think my grandparents would have built their first home around 1906 as newly-weds. My father always said when his father first arrived in Saskatchewan, as a German speaking immigrant from Russia in the 1890s, his first home was built of stone and mud topped with a sod roof (very Laura Ingalls Wilderish!). Even then, impermanent as it proved, the typical timber farmstead with its shingled roof must have been a huge step up in the business of homesteading. Now, in Heather’s vision anyway, it just looks beautiful.

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Finished glory

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