Artist William Pura has developed a particular kind of toughness to paint and photograph Manitoba's austere terrain features.
"Southern Ontario wraps around you. It is a consoling place. Here in Manitoba, you are so exposed," he says.
Pura is a tall man with a direct demeanour. He laughs easily, and his dedication to making art is palpable. It is not hard to imagine him setting up his camera in the middle of a prairie storm.
The veteran Winnipeg visual artist and noted composer will speak on June 6 at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café as part of First Friday's Art Talk/Art Walk series. The event is a rare chance to view the artist's varied bodies of work together. When seen as a whole, the works become a thorough and honest portrait of where we live.
"Here, it is very easy to get out of the city," Pura continues. "After driving 20 minutes it is possible to stand inside a whole lot of flat, empty space. Things feel like they just slide away from you, into infinity. It can be frightening, in a way, but as an artist you need to face these things."
He began painting and photographing Lake Winnipeg and the surrounding area in 2004. Like so many who live in the region, his life has been shaped by frequent interactions with the huge body of water.
Many of the photographs depict a distant horizon line, but against this constant feature, Pura has captured the distinctive light of dawn or dusk and the barely shifting tones of long, grey days. But besides being beautiful, the photos are also disconcerting, as they are largely devoid of people and can feel stark.
Familiar scenes, such as Winnipeg and Matlock beaches, are emptied of summer crowds. The best of these photos transforms these public spaces into a personal encounter with vastness, even magnificence. The fact that Lake Winnipeg is under threat of massive deterioration only adds to the series' emotional pull.
Though his Lake Winnipeg photos have yet to find a critical audience, Pura is well known for the realistic paintings of urban landscapes from the late 1980s. As the paintings describe the city at night, they are also about the dramatic interplay of light and dark. Street lamps cast an eerie glow on the manicured lawns of a city park, or throw shadows of tree branches up against the side of a house in Wolseley or the West End.
One of the things Pura loves about painting landscapes is perspective, or the chance to allow viewers to move through the space. Indeed, his paintings are strangely enveloping. In a prolonged study of one of his night scenes, it begins to feel as if we are included in its lonely narrative. Circumstances have contrived to bring us here, to this street, late at night, where we are the only ones awake.
Where many landscape artists make work that is picturesque, Pura has a proclivity for truth-telling. When it was suggested he remove the traffic signs from his paintings in order to make them more appealing, he refused.
He is equally captivated by what is beautiful and what is ugly about where we live. In his series of photos of Winnipeg's Logan Avenue, for example, there are the expected shots of old-downtown textures, but also several of old couches heaved on the side of the road.
Pura's work will appeal to anyone who has a love/hate relationship with living in Manitoba (and isn't that all of us?). We have bitterly cold winters, but Pura describes the sublime beauty of a frozen lake. Our city's empty lots and boarded-up warehouses can be depressing, but Pura lets us discover the visual intrigue in these, too.
"Some photos are more attractive, and some are actually funny, while others are more sad and bleak," Pura says of his Logan Avenue photos. "But they are part of Winnipeg, and when we as residents observe these spaces they tell us about ourselves. What we prefer and don't prefer and what we have to do to survive."
Sarah Swan is a Winnipeg artist and writer. She will host Art Talk/Art Walk at the Winnipeg Free Press News Café on Friday at 6 p.m. Call 204-697-7069 for tickets to the event.