The numerous small cemeteries scattered throughout rural Saskatchewan bear silent witness to a disappearing time when many families made a living from the land.
Swift Current historian and conceptual artist Hugh Henry visited several of these cemeteries to capture the images on display in his current exhibition Prairie Flora at the Jasper Cultural and Historical Centre in Maple Creek.
He composed these images to place a focus on the prairie vegetation. The headstones or grave covers are included as secondary components, and they are obscured by the vegetation or are seen in the background
The exhibition’s title is a reference to the natural vegetation on the landscape as well as the homesteaders who lived on the land and became part of the prairie.
“Its reflecting back to the homestead era and the underlying theme is that homesteaders come out to break the prairie to start farming,” he said. “They lived their lives on the land and were sustained by the soil, and then for the most part they died where they have spent their lives, and then their bodies were buried in the ground and became part of the prairie again, and that is reflected through the plants reclaiming the graveyards.”
He has been capturing these images over a period of about eight years while visiting over 50 cemeteries. There are 30 photographs in the exhibition that represent 19 cemeteries. Most of the images have been taken in southwest Saskatchewan from Assiniboia on the east side and up to the South Saskatchewan River on the north side. He included two images that were taken this past summer while he undertook an eight-day historic walk in central Saskatchewan from near Humboldt to Fort Carlton.
“I've always been interested in the history of rural Saskatchewan, and also in my artwork in the past I have reflected on it,” he said. “I do conceptual art, so it's the idea more so than a regular painting or drawing or more common forms of art. I use items from the past in a lot of my artwork and tell a bit of a story or a narrative or hint at something I'm thinking about, which is not just a personal thing, but it has more universal implication.”
This is the first time he has done a strictly photographic exhibition, instead of combining different media to create an art installation or art piece.
“I wanted the photographs to tell the stories, and people are familiar with photographs, whether it's a wedding or a newborn baby,” he said. “These are times of our lives that we capture somehow and we want to carry with us, and when we get around for a family gathering at Christmas or whenever else, there's always photographs, there's always ways of capturing life. So in a sense the photographs do the same thing. They act in that way. They act as capturing our history and documenting it and bringing it forward to another generation.”
In this exhibition he is reflecting on the connections that people still might have with rural Saskatchewan, even though they are now living in urban areas or elsewhere in Canada.
“Not everybody, but I think there is that sort of lingering connection and maybe it's sort of a mourning as well, grieving from what has changed,” he said. “We live a very instantaneous life and everything is fast and everything is immediate, but sort of harkening back to those simpler times and what are our roots as a people now and how do we connect with the past. Maybe I'm overstating that, but I certainly think about that a lot and I think other people out there do as well.”
These images of overgrown and perhaps forgotten grave sites gradually returning to nature can be viewed as symbolic of the depopulation and decline of rural Saskatchewan, but Henry felt visitors to the exhibition will form their own opinions about what they see.
“The idea with all artwork is to have individuals viewing it come to it from their own experiences, from their own understandings of decline of rural Saskatchewan or connections to the farm or even if they have some understanding of art, how things are composed and so on,” he said. “The way I see an image may be different than other people see and image and that's what you want to do is make it kind of universal, but also individualistic, so the person that's viewing it does get a spark from it somehow.”
He has been a long-time Swift Current resident, but he still feels the need to keep his own connections with the area where he grew up. His great grandparents and grandparents were homesteaders, and his father was born on a farm, not in a town or in a hospital. Henry’s hometown is Shamrock, which is located between Chaplin and Gravelbourg, and he still takes care of the rural cemeteries where his great grandparents and grandparents are buried.
“I go out there two or three times a year, depending on the rainfall, and mow the grass and fill in some gopher holes and other things that need to be done,” he said. “I do that as a matter of interest, but also as a matter of responsibility.”
He is following in the footsteps of his father, who also took care of these two cemeteries. His father was a municipal administrator for rural municipalities for 46 years, and he took care of various other cemeteries in those rural municipal areas where he worked.
The title of each image in the exhibition includes the name of the rural cemetery and its legal land description. It might add to the sense of remoteness of these sites, because only those who are familiar with the area will know where it is.
This exhibition might raise questions in the mind of viewers about the importance of these old cemeteries and the need to preserve them. It is an issue that Henry has struggled with throughout his career as a museum curator.
“Do we keep everything forever,” he asked. “What's important to keep and also not just materially, but also psychologically. When do you let go of things, whether it's family members or this lingering knowledge about communities or places where my forefathers homesteaded. At some point, it is going to all disappear and so maybe that's kind of a natural process.”
He feels a sense of responsibility to take care of the two cemeteries with connections to his family, but he has no clear position on what should happen with these rural cemeteries.
“I'm not out there saying save all these places, but maybe the exhibition speaks to that, the reclaiming part of it,” he said. “Maybe that's the story line all along, that there was a time when this was natural prairie, there was a time when people came and ploughed it up and planted grain on it and made a living out of it and raised a family on it, and maybe that time has come and gone, and maybe it is time for the prairie to come back and just reclaim it.”
Henry’s exhibition Prairie Flora will be on show in the art gallery at the Jasper Cultural and Historical Centre until Dec. 20.