Canadian artist Tom Benner, known for eye-catching animal sculptures, dead at 72

Tom Benner, the Canadian artist whose larger-than-life sculptures depicting nature and forcing audiences to think about 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.

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Benner’s art was part of the movement known as London Regionalism in the 1960s and 1970s, which challenged how the artist positioned himself in the art world and in the community.

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“When I think of Tom’s work, my first thought is his love of nature and the environment,” said Catherine Elliott Shaw, acting manager of McIntosh Gallery at Western University and former curator.

The White Rhino sculpture by Tom Benner stands in front of the London Museum in London, Ontario.
Benner’s White Rhino sculpture stands in front of the London Museum in London, Ontario. (Dave Chidley/CBC)

“He created an amazing array of artworks that attempted to draw people’s attention to the vanishing natural habitat, the animals themselves and their place in our living space, but he was also interested in humor and he knew that when he did 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 look at his work and absorb the message as a person.”

In London, Benners White rhino – an aluminum sculpture of a large rhino – stands in front of Museum London.

About his art he said: “Each piece is strongly rooted in a tradition of storytelling and storytelling, but equally deals with materiality in the form of dreams, memories.

“My sculpture is not just about the individual piece, but also about the process, the materials and the space it occupies.”

CLOCK | Tom Benner explains his exhibition at the Confederation Center of the Arts in Charlottetown 12 years ago:

Artist Tom Benner has a new exhibit at the Confederation Center of the Arts in Charlottetown

Benner’s work has been exhibited across Canada, including at Toronto’s Union Station and the Confederation Center of the Arts in Charlottetown, where he created an iconic moose that stands in front of the building.

“He meant a lot to the culture of this region and to Canadian art in general,” said Cassandra Getty, Curator of Art at Museum London.

“He asserted his own unique voice and way of working that was instantly recognizable. He was very prescient in his work in terms of imagining how humanity is threatening the environment.”

Benner’s biography on his website states that he lived with his wife Pauline and brother-in-law.

His brother is the artist Ron Benner, who also lives in London.

Benner “always very serious about his art”

The Benner household was a happy household that celebrated art, said Michael Gibson, president of the Michael Gibson Gallery.

“I used to go to their house in 9th and 10th grade and they were very, very funny. Tom made these giant boulders out of fiberglass back then. We lifted them over our heads sort of like Fred Flinstone – type stuff to show how strong we were. It was hilarious,” Gibson recalled.

Cassandra Getty, curator at Museum London, stands in front of the White Rhino on Thursday. The black ribbon was attached to the foot of the rhino by a mourner. The artist Benner died on Wednesday. (Kate Dubinski/CBC)

“He had a sense of humor, but he also took his art very seriously.”

Tom Benner was best known for his large sculptures made from cold-rolled, riveted aluminum and copper. In the 1980s he created a number of works on endangered or extinct species, including the white rhino.

“He had messages to get across that were pretty serious, but he used humor to get those messages across,” Getty said.

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