Tom Benner, the Canadian artist whose larger-than-life sculptures depicted nature and forced audiences to reflect on themselves in relation to their surroundings, has died.
Benner lived and died in London, Ontario. His family confirmed his death on Wednesday at the age of 72.
Benner’s art was part of the movement known as London Regionalism in the 1960s and 1970s, challenging how the artist fit into the art world and community.
“When I think of Tom’s work, I mostly think of his love of nature and the environment,” said Catherine Elliott Shaw, acting director of Western University’s McIntosh Gallery and former curator.
“He did an incredible series of artworks that tried to focus people on the endangered natural habitat, the animals themselves, their place in our life scope, but he was also interested in humor and he knew that if he could use that humor he could reach people better. That’s not to say his work wasn’t serious, but he knew how to use humor to get people to watch his work and getting the message across as a person.
In London, Benner’s white rhino – an aluminum sculpture of a large rhinoceros – stands in front of Museum London.
About his art, he said, “Each piece is strongly rooted in a tradition of storytelling and storytelling, but is also concerned with materiality. Some stories are grounded in historical research, traveling through bookstores and libraries at the seeking information, some stories come in the form of dreams, memories.
“My sculpture is not just about the individual piece, but also about the process, materials and space it occupies.”
Benner’s work has been exhibited across Canada, including at Union Station in Toronto and the Confederation Center of the Arts in Charlottetown, where he created an iconic moose that stands outside the building.
“He meant a lot to the culture of this region and to Canadian art in general,” said Cassandra Getty, art curator at Museum London.
“He asserted his own voice and way of working that was instantly recognizable. He was very prescient in his work on the idea of how humanity threatened the environment.”
On his website, Benner’s biography indicates that he lived with his wife Pauline and his brother-in-law.
Her brother is artist Ron Benner, also a resident of London.
Benner “always very serious in his art”
The Benner household was a jovial family in which art was celebrated, said Michael Gibson, president of the Michael Gibson Gallery.
“I used to go to their house in grade 9, 10, and they were very, very funny. Back then, Tom was making these huge fiberglass boulders. We were lifting them over our heads , sort of Fred Flinstone-type stuff, to show how strong we were. It was hilarious,” Gibson recalled.
“He had a sense of humor but he was also very serious in his art.”
Tom Benner was best known for his large sculptures made of cold, rolled and riveted aluminum and copper. In the 1980s, he created a series of works dealing with endangered or extinct species, including the white rhinoceros.
“He had messages to get across that were pretty serious, but he used humor to help get those messages across,” Getty said.