It’s a gory scene: the centrepiece features a decapitated woman and a hanged man. Heather Benning created The Altar to bring to light the true story of a young couple in rural Saskatchewan who came to tragic ends. “This story was told to me by a woman in Redvers when I was an artist-in-residence there. It was the way she told the story that resonated with me. I thought about it for six years before I made The Altar. I wanted to do something to give it some honour,” Benning says.

The mixed-media sculpture, created with the support of a Saskatchewan Arts Board grant, is inspired by Gothic medieval altarpieces that Benning became obsessed with at a museum in London, England, while she was taking her master’s degree in Scotland. “There were these incredibly well-crafted, beautiful, but disturbing, stories going on inside the altar spaces. The altars really impressed me with their craftmanship and stories – they were always gory stories,” she says.

Flanking the centrepiece are hinged panels with vignettes depicting Benning’s idea of the backstory of each character, showing how a loving couple, children of immigrants who travelled across the ocean to start a hopeful life in a new country, could end up dead in an apparent murder/suicide. (It is not clear whether the man is killed by his own hand or in retaliation for his wife’s murder.) When closed, the altar is in the shape of a prairie grain elevator.

While Benning typically works in large-scale, outdoor, site-specific installations, The Altar is smaller and suited to gallery settings. In exhibitions, she chooses to have it facing a corner, due to its dark content, so school groups and others may choose whether or not to view it. “I was always really worried about how people would react to it, but I’ve had nothing but good responses,” she says. “The story is still relevant today. Violence against women is a pretty steady topic and, currently, it’s a hot topic.”

The piece has been exhibited in Saskatoon, Moose Jaw, Swift Current, Prince Albert, Alberta and Manitoba, with plans for exhibition in Ontario underway.

Benning was thrilled when the Saskatchewan Arts Board purchased The Altar for its Permanent Collection. “I never thought I would sell it, and I was convinced that the only buyer ever would be the Saskatchewan Arts Board. It’s not something people would want in their living room. To me, by being purchased by the Arts Board, it’s found its home,” she says.

The Saskatchewan Arts Board’s Permanent Collection includes approximately 3,000 works of 750 artists, and represents the work of our province's artists over the past seven decades. Its goal is to represent the contemporary art practices of artists within the province for the purpose of public access.

Photos courtesy of the artist