The painter Vivian Bennett’s work can be described in many ways – vibrant, surreal, warm, larger-than-life – but through all of this runs a streak that is difficult to ignore, a slice of life from the Prairies.
In almost all of her paintings, whether portraiture or landscape, Bennett has been able to capture the inner life and culture of the prairie people, and a love for what goes on within the prairie homes once work is done outdoors.
“Coming across a process that ‘works’ is a great ending to a problem,” explained Bennett. “I am always searching for answers and I hope I never stop; in fact, I believe that ‘peaking’ is the beginning of the artist’s demise.”
Born and raised as a city girl in Edmonton, Bennett was drawn to the pencil from a very early age, however, with limited exposure to art education in those days, it was quite a challenge to pursue the craft.
But not being someone to give up easily, Bennett took advantage of the commercial art program offered under the direction of Art Evoy and June Morrison, while attending Victoria Composite High School in the mid 1960s.
“Painting for me is a process that I continue to enjoy and look forward to every day,” said Bennett. “The biggest challenge is to make the shapes fit the colours and the spaces fit the shapes.”
One of the most important and rather “happy accidents” to happen to Bennett was her role as a ‘window dresser’ at the 8 Avenue Bay in Calgary, where she worked for 10 years before she joined the photo studio in the advertising department of the same outfit.
“It is there that I learnt so much of what I have brought to my paintings,” said Bennett. “While working there I learned how to choose models, dress them and stage them in a set-up to tell a story.”
And so ‘spaces and shapes’ became her painting style and ‘setting-up the story’ became her drive, said Bennett.
“Together they form my work today,” added Bennett. “This process of telling my stories within the confines of my prairie culture, continues to motivate and challenge my skills as an artist.”
Bennett considers herself a student of life, always learning and much of her subjects are people she knows and interacts regularly.
Her neighbour who took eggs to town inspired her painting “On Thursday Elsie Took the Egg Money to Town” and portrays a red barn with prairie skies stretching out in the background, as her neighbour with a basket in the crook of her arms makes her way back home.
The painting which she did as part of an art competition for Cenovus for their new building is now a part of their permanent collection.
“I didn’t win the competition, but they did purchase the painting and that was a really big deal for me,” said Bennett.
“Here people still care about each other and look after each other, similar to the way it was in pioneer days, when you had to or you died,” said Bennett. “It’s kind of the prairie idea where we all kind of help each other out just from the goodness in our hearts. It’s also the theme of many of my paintings.”
Bennett said that there are two disciplines that dominate her work, the art of drawing and painting and the art of defining her prairie culture.
“Balancing the two continues to interest me and is the major drive in my work, so when friends and neighbours of my central Alberta home act as models for my paintings, it is an emotional expression of the prairie culture that surrounds the whole process, which becomes intensely satisfying,” added Bennett. “I’ve always been interested in culture, why we do the things that we do and what makes us different from other cultures.”
According to Bennett, from set-up to finished product is a story within a story of the Alberta prairies defined by the body language of the people who live within it.
“I choose to do this in an atmosphere of complete freedom from constraint of any kind,” said Bennett. “I must have done something good once to deserve such a reward as this.”