Tom Benner, 1950 – 2022 (Image copied from Tom Benner’s website)

I first encountered Tom Benner’s art back in the 1970s when I was an art student at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario. In those days, I saw his work at various venues in the city: the then London Public Library and Art Museum (now Museum London), the Trajectory Gallery, the McIntosh Gallery, and Forest City Gallery. His focus at that time was on creating inventories of leaves and building geological forms, such as boulders and ice formations. I was intrigued by his art and was well aware of his participation as a member of the Hermen Goode Aesthetics Racing Team through his appearance in sculptor Don Bonham’s lampoonic films and collages and as one of Bonham’s many apprentices.  

Tom had graduated from H. B. Beal secondary school in 1969, which he called the “School of Rock” for artists. It was the same year that Don Bonham started teaching there. Several years ago, when I was reminiscing with Tom about the good old days in London and the extraordinary dynamism of its art community during the late 1960s and 1970s, he said this: “So much was going on back then. It’s hard to believe how many incredible artists came out of that era in little London. Exhibition openings were reminiscent of big New York openings, and whoever could get the most people out to their openings was a big hit. I can’t express how much fun it was growing up through all that.” 

He also recalled his time working for Don Bonham, who was an important influence on both him and many other aspiring young artists: “When Bonham was making his “Leroy” streamliner (Bonneville Machine), I helped him with the casting of his model Lynn Donoghue, who was an amazing artist. I was also part of the pit crew that went to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. There must have been 15,000 or 20,000 people there at least. And there were all kinds of racing machines with different engines, some converted from McCulloch chainsaw motors. Graham Wright and Peter Borowsky created the Famous James Racing Team and had built a two-man dragster. They planned to go with Bonham to Bonneville, but Peter couldn’t go because it was picking time at his family’s radish farm, so they asked me to go and to shift gears behind Graham. Our record speed was 29.22 mph.” 

In 1982, although no longer living in London, I paid a special visit to the London Regional Art Gallery to see Tom’s exhibition “Tom Benner’s Third World Parity Kit.” Sharing affinities with the colourful pop art constructions of the American artist Red Grooms, this ambitious, carnivalesque sculptural installation revealed Tom’s ability to make us think about serious global issues through the use of satire. As he stated, “it included “everything from religion to the military machine, stopping here and there to include our eating habits, politicians, conglomerate business, and the media.” 

From the very beginning, Tom had something relevant to say, and paid close attention to the public sphere of reception for his art – to the importance of communicating with an audience. Over the years, the performative imperative he attached to his work manifested in alternative sites for its public presentation outside of the gallery system, such as the installation of “A Landscape” (2006) at Union Station and the presentation of his three “Cruising the Margins” (2003) cars at the Canadian International Car Show in Toronto.  

Bison, 1996 / Copper / Installed at Union Station, Toronto, ON. / Thomson Art Gallery, Permanent Collection / 180 cm x 120 cm x 240 cm

Tom was an immensely personable individual who enjoyed connecting with people from all walks of life. He once took an extensive road trip through Northern Ontario and across the prairies to British Columbia that involved hauling a trailer containing his life-size sculpture of a copper bison, stopping to meet and talk and share stories with people at various places along the way. The recipient of several outdoor sculpture commissions, I remember how he interacted with thousands of people in Eastern Canada in 1999 when I invited him to be artist-in-residence at the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island. 

In 1986 when I was living in Sackville, New Brunswick, and was a board member of the artist-run Struts Gallery, we hosted Tom’s exhibition “A Response,” which consisted of large-scale sculptures and linocut prints that depicted threatened or extinct wildlife, such as the fin whale, polar bear, sea eagle, puma, great auk, and white rhinoceros. Visually captivating and highly accessible, the presentation embodied extensive research about the meanings of animals and nature symbols to older civilizations. Tom’s work resonated with the local community and attracted a large audience to the opening reception at which a local Punk band called Johnny and the Baptists gave a raucous performance. 

A particular highlight of the exhibition was the surreal installation of “White Rhino” (1986), a full-scale aluminum-clad sculpture of a rhinoceros in the lobby of the Fine Arts Building at Mount Allison University. The great beast was just too large to carry upstairs and get through the door of the old upper-floor Struts Gallery on Main Street. That winter, when the exhibition ended and Tom was back in London, fellow artist David Bobier and I loaded the rhinoceros into the back of a pickup truck and delivered it to my studio-barn for storage before it was later purchased by the London Regional Art Gallery for permanent outdoor display. I am reminded of that time when I look at “White Pine” (1985), one of the extensive series of linocut prints from Tom’s show that hangs on a prominent wall in my home. Tom gave it to me back then in exchange for one of my own works. 

White Rhino, 1986. On the east side of Museum London (London, ON). Pop rivetted aluminum. Life size.

In the 1980s and 1990s, I did much research that focused on the nature/culture dialectic, wrote a thesis on the relationship between art and ecology for my Master’s degree at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and was creating sculptures and installations about the waterfowl and ecology of the Tantramar Marshes. I paid close attention to what Tom was doing at this time and was particularly interested in his archivist approach to his work in “Coves” (1990-91), the way he documented the wildlife found in the fragile ecosystem that serves as a natural filter for the Thames River behind his former house in the heart of London; and in “Homage to the Owls” (1986), how he gave visual form to an inventory of owls found in Canada and incorporated artifacts and information that referenced these incredible nocturnal birds from other cultural perspectives around the world. 

In the 1990s, during my tenure as director at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, I began working with various artists from across the country on projects aimed at revealing and interpreting histories, identities, landscapes, and ecologies in Canada’s diverse regions. As I was particularly focused on presenting work that explored human displacement from the natural environment, Tom’s art was the perfect fit. In 1999, I invited him to the Island as artist-in-residence, commissioned him to create “Moose” (1999), and curated an exhibition titled “Memorials to Nation-building”, which featured three of his sculptures – “Bison” (1996), “A Pod of Walruses” (1986), and Tecumseh (1993) – and which made a powerful statement about the untold and uncelebrated non-human casualties in the creation of our country. 

Moose, 1999 / Copper, Rivets / Confederation Centre of the Arts. Charlottetown, PEI. Permanent Collection / overall – 105 x 65 cm.

The representation of animals in art is as old as the prehistoric paintings in the caves of Altamira and Lascaux. Throughout the history and folklore of Canada, animals have been used to express national identity. The recognition of how animals in art and popular culture can tell the story of a nation, embodying human beliefs, values, ideologies, and aspirations, prompted art writer Goldie Rans to refer to Tom’s sculpture as “a more truly Canadian art than that of his peers in the images it evokes.” 

Along with the beaver and other wildlife, such as the Canada goose and the loon, the moose is a popular and ubiquitous icon of our northern homeland. Moose-crossing signs are familiar to every Canadian who has driven across the country’s timberland regions from the Alaska border to the eastern tip of Newfoundland. The only province that does not qualify as “moose country” is Prince Edward Island, where large forests were clear-cut in the 1700s and 1800s for lumber that was shipped to England. Moose disappeared from the Island, along with other wildlife, such as deer and bear, when forests were transformed into farmland. Thus, it is the absence of the moose in the birthplace of Canada that is addressed by Tom’s much loved copper sculpture, a monument to the pervasive tendency of so-called human progress to convert natural ecosystems to human use. 

Similarly, the installation of “A Pod of Walruses” (1986), which Tom generously donated to the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, references the lost memory of the walrus or “sea cow” on Prince Edward Island. In the 1700s, slaughter of the walrus was a booming business along the north shore of the Island. Valued for its tusks, oil, and hide, it was hunted until its population was decimated despite early attempts at regulation. In 1839, it was declared officially extinct on the Island. A geological survey in the 1840s references a deep pond near Tignish filled with bones, and how tusks of ivory would occasionally be found on the shore and in the forests. Today, only the place names of Sea Cow Pond and Sea Cow Head, along with Tom’s beautifully hand-crafted sculptures of these amazing creatures, serve to remind us that the walrus once thrived on Prince Edward Island.

A Pod of Walrus, 2009 / Leather/Mixed Media / Confederation Centre of the Arts, Charlottetown, PEI. Permanent Collection / 8 x 2 x 4 ft.

Perhaps the most dramatic elegiac statement made by Tom’s iconic art about the irrecoverable past was the placement of “Bison” (1996) in the middle of Memorial Hall at the Confederation Centre of the Arts. In this highly charged, nationalistic site of remembrance, it stood as a potent symbol of the great thundering herds of wild bison that once roamed unhindered over the prairie landscape. At one time, before their merciless slaughter brought them to near extinction by the year 1900, they numbered between 60 and 100 million head, a rumbling wall stretching from horizon to horizon.

Hanging Fin Whale, 1982 / Steel and Hardware / Museum London, Permanent Collection / 400cm x 77 cm diameter

“Moose” (1999), “A Pod of Walruses” (1986), and “Bison” (1996) were forerunners of a series of “Shrines” (2008-09), which mourn the loss of extinct or near-extinct birds and animals, providing a visual and physical presence in the here and now in the form of five altars dedicated to five different species. All of these works are the progeny of “Hanging Fin (Whale)” (1983), Tom’s thought-provoking lament to the thoughtless killing of a newborn whale, a signature work that marked the beginning of his prolific production of memorial sculptures to endangered and extinct wildlife. Like his post-mortem shrine to the demise of the passenger pigeon or his recreation of a group of great auks, the intention of these works was to serve as a focus of contact to awaken our collective memory of and connectedness to the beauty, wonder, and intrinsic value of these long-departed species. 

Despite the sobering funereal content and feelings of remorse attached to Tom’s memory-making art, the animal as “Other” represented a source of awe and excitement for him, which he transferred into his playful sculpture. According to John Berger in “Why Look art Animals?”, the mirroring function of the animal is a critical one because the look of the animal is so unlike the look of another human being.  

Tecumseh, 1994- 1995. Copper, wood, & fibreglass. 4 water colour and linocut prints on paper, varying dimensions

Tom’s art challenges misconceptions about animals, as with his intent behind “Turkey Vultures” (1983), which according to him was, “to bring a very shy and reclusive inhabitant of the skies down for closer observation; a movement towards greater understanding of its unobtrusive beauty.” Like the much maligned crow, to which he pays tribute in “A Murder of Crows” (1983), these magnificent birds are often unthinkingly killed simply because of their appearance. 

Since the beginning of the new millennium, I had the opportunity to present Tom’s exhibition “Cruising the Margins” at Rodman Hall Arts Centre in St. Catharines and his exhibition “Call of the Wild” at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. In all of his exhibitions, Tom’s sculptures extolled the creative hand of the artist, the value of manual labour, and an inherent sympathy between the expressive qualities of materials, the process of construction, and a vitally important message.  

At its foundation, Tom Benner’s art derived from a fundamental desire to play, to explore, and to create. As an antidote for our disturbed relationship to the natural world and our collective amnesia regarding the past, he offered the possibility of radically re-envisioning and reshaping our world, that is, by taking us out of our narrow anthropocentric perspective by recovering our creative roots in wild nature. In this age of virtual realities, the physicality of his sculpture brings us to an awareness of our own bodily presence, connecting mind to matter, culture to nature, and history to place. 

Terry Graff is a visual artist, art writer, curator, and art educator who has served as director of four public art galleries in Canada (Confederation Centre Art Gallery, Rodman Hall Arts Centre, Mendel Art Gallery, Beaverbrook Art Gallery) and the artist-run Struts Gallery. Along with exhibiting his art regionally, nationally, and internationally, he has curated over 200 exhibitions, and written numerous articles, catalogues, and books on a diverse range of contemporary and historical art subjects. A recipient of the Fanshawe College Distinguished Alumni Award, he is currently working on a major book titled “Stranger in a Familiar Land: The Irrepressible Art and Life of Don Bonham.” 

This article first appeared on Terry Graff’s Facebook page on September 23, 2022, and was copied here with his permission.

All images were copied from Tom Benner’s website:

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