For almost 50 years Douglas Bentham has let his intuition guide in creationErin Petrow, Saskatoon StarPhoenix
October 20, 2017
You might not know the name Douglas Bentham, but if you have been living in Saskatoon for any amount of time you have likely come across a piece of him.
A very well known — and highly respected — Saskatoon artist, Bentham has been working locally for nearly half a century. He is probably best known for Unfurled — the large stainless steel sculpture sitting at the bottom of the University Bridge.
When Unfurled was first put on temporary display late in 2004, it quickly became a favourite for Saskatoon residents. City of Saskatoon community initiatives manager Kevin Kitchen said the city purchased the sculpture outright in 2007 for $150,000 — with help from the federal Cultural Capital of Canada program — after residents voiced their displeasure with the idea of it being removed.
Although Bentham is known internationally as a constructivist sculptor, he originally graduated from the University of Saskatchewan with a fine arts degree in painting. He says he changed disciplines so quickly after graduation that there aren’t many of his original paintings floating around.
Bentham went back to school in 1989 to get his master’s degree in sculpting. He credits his father — who worked as a mechanic — as the driving force behind his interest in sculpting with metal.
“The thing about my dad was it just gave me opportunities to apply myself — working with my hands and such. Him and his buddies built me a hotrod when I was 16 and I couldn’t believe it, I would race on 8th Street and it was very cool. So I owe quite a bit to my dad.”
Although the original inspiration came from his father, Bentham says his sculpting style was most influenced by internationally renowned abstract sculptors David Smith and Sir Anthony Caro.
“Doug is probably in the province, and certainly in the city, the only sculptor of constructed steel or of constructivist sculpture in that top calibre,” said fellow Saskatoon artist and longtime friend Robert Christie.
Christie, who studied art with Bentham at the U of S, says Bentham has always been 100 per cent dedicated to his craft. Christie said when he and many of their other classmates decided to take jobs in galleries after graduation, Bentham simply said “I’m just going to sculpt.”
Eight years after he first graduated, Bentham got the opportunity to work side-by-side with Caro at the Emma Lake Artist Workshop on the university’s Kenderdine Campus.
This intense drive to create, develop and display his sculptures also became one of the driving factors behind the start of the city’s Placemaker Program. Including the now permanently placed Unfurled, Bentham has displayed 15 works through the program since it’s introduction in 1994.
The Remai Modern Art Gallery also has a quite extensive collection of his work. According to collections curator Sandra Fraser, this includes a painting he completed in 1969, small scale sculptures dating from the 1970s through to the 1990s, a variety of mid size pieces and one large sculpture — which has recently been removed from the sculpture garden at the former Mendel Art Gallery.
Because Bentham has been in the art community for so long, both locally and internationally, Fraser says it’s easy to forget the lasting mark he has made.
“There’s a certain sweet spot when you’re becoming well-known and you’re getting attention and once you establish that people tend to forget,” she explains. “He’s been established for so long I think we forget the impact that he has elsewhere.”
While none of his works are currently on display, Fraser says not to rule out the idea of an exhibition in the future.
Bentham’s studio, located on an acreage about a half-hour outside of Saskatoon, is littered with finished and unfinished projects. Some of them seemed finished at one point, but have evolved inside his mind and are now waiting for an upgrade to their current forms.
A perfect example of Bentham’s evolving vision for his work is Perfect World, the large stainless steel monument dedicated to Mother Nature. Displayed on his acreage outside the studio — one of the tallest works on the lot — he is hoping to add script on it’s base and extend it’s long column even further into the sky.
“I always try to reach out for the better and anything you make is a testament to that. Just keep moving and stay open to what other people have to say and don’t get all caught up in this idea of ‘Oh well, I’ve been doing this forever, it’s my discipline and I can’t deviate from that,’ which is not true at all, just look around,” Bentham explains, gesturing to the rest of his studio, which, save for small walkways, is scattered with sculptures small and large in every stage of completion.
Not wanting to be pigeonholed as an sculptor who only works in metal, Bentham regularly looks toward other sources of inspiration. Recently he has been experimenting with sculptures made of white and red oak. He says working with the hardwood can be a chore, but the combination of the rough, weathered exterior and the lasting strength of the wood within is worth it.
Bentham does most of his shopping at junk yards and scrap metal dealers. He likes to work with whatever catches his eye. He lets his purchases find their own way into projects, even if things sometimes get off to a false start.
“I’ll collect anything that stimulates me,” he explains. “Number one for me is about tactility. I go into a scrap yard or run into a quantity of material and I’m looking for something in it to provoke me … I don’t push anything I just let it be what they want to be.”
Bentham had to use a different process for his recent project The Tablets. As his first ever installation, the piece required him to have a set vision from the beginning. He made 27 different yet cohesive bronze and brass sculptures over three to four years.
“It’s a lot of work I tell you, when you’re making art it should quite literally at times give you a headache.”
Currently on display at the Gordon Snelgrove Gallery at the University of Saskatchewan until Oct. 27, The Tablets debuted at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery in September 2016. Moose Jaw curator Jennifer McRorie said the public engaged with the pieces in a way she doesn’t usually see firsthand.
“People came up to me and really wanted to tell me how much the installation moved them and I thought that was really interesting because a lot of times we don’t get to hear unless they write it in the comment book,” she said. “They were really engaged in it and really spent time with it too, it was interesting to see people as they’d sit and really consider the work and spend time walking through those rows.”
Bentham gave credit to McRorie for how well she organized the installation within the gallery.
“The way they lit it, The Tablets just glowed. I was so impressed,” he remembers.
It was Bentham’s idea to display each tablet on a pine box organized in symmetrical rows. McRorie said Bentam’s understanding of how to engage the space in which his art is displayed sets him apart from other sculptors.
“His work responds to the space it’s situated in and that’s what I find really compelling,” McRorie said.
Christie adds that Bentham’s work keeps its viewers engaged – revealing new aspects or angles even after year’s on display.
It must be true, because nearly 13 years after the installation of Unfurled, Bentham says people will still stop to talk to him about the sculpture, mentioning how the weather or time of day has shown the work to them in a new light. He says Unfurled taught him it’s ok to consider the public when conceiving a sculpture.
“I don’t compromise in any way, but I do respond to certain settings — physical settings for a start — and what the setting is going to be used for, just trying to cover everything,” Bentham explains.
“Originally the maquette (for Unfurled) was for another situation which was inside not outside, but I just knew that this thing had the potential to, maybe for the first time, to have a bit of symbolic quality in it. In this case it’s growth, unfurling and falling back, it’s sort of what a community is, if we can contribute, bring things to fruition and let them go to start new stuff — it’s quite organic.”