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Manitoba farmer has a keen eye for disquieting images

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JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Manitoba farmer-turned-photographer Stan Wiebe, 54, has a wonderfully disquieting exhibit of 46 photos, Almost Black and White, on display at Portage La Prairie's Portage and District Arts Centre until Feb. 14.

PORTAGE LA PRAIRIE -- If you were told the photos are of a fence post, a line of fence posts, a snow cone on top of a fence post, a scrawny-looking tree, a stand of trees, fungus on a tree, that might not sound like much of a sales pitch.

But somehow, farmer Stan Wiebe turns the simple and commonplace -- much of it on his farm -- into a startling exhibit of rural Manitoba arcana. His excellent 46-photo show, Almost Black and White, is on display at the Portage and District Arts Centre until Feb. 14.

Wiebe, 54, is a noticer. He notices the trees, bushes, trails and fence lines everyone passes a hundred times without stopping.

But there's frequently a threat lurking in his photographs, a sense of how quickly something beautiful can turn to horror or worse. The disquiet is often in the shape of darkening skies. "There's beauty in both sunshine and storm... however, the adrenaline flows more during a storm," he writes for one photo. He includes a blurb for each picture.

'Farming is a very practical business, whereas art, in some people's eyes, is very impractical. A farmer thinks of the basics: hard work, good food'

¬-- Stan Wiebe, who is exhibiting his photographs at the Portage and District Arts Centre

Clouds figure prominently in his images. "Perhaps it's my farming background, but we do watch clouds and the drama in the clouds, and it's exciting and nerve-wracking," he said in an interview.

There are several harvest scenes, for example, but these are not placid or triumphant images. The clouds are gathering on the horizon. There's a sense of the rush and stress of harvest.

It's a wonder more artists aren't harvested from Prairie farms. Farms are incubators for many enterprises besides agriculture, from small businesses to unique crafts, but not often the arts.

Wiebe acknowledges the fact. "Farming is a very practical business, whereas art, in some people's eyes, is very impractical. A farmer thinks of the basics: hard work, good food."

But Wiebe came from an artistic family of musicians and painters. He has carried his camera with him everywhere since he was a teen. "My free-time energy goes to photography," he said.

He fits the profile of tall, lanky farmer. He's just a shade under 6-5 and he and his brother, Glen, are major farmers in the area. They run a 9,000-acre crop farm called Beaver Creek Farms that includes 900 acres of potatoes near MacGregor, just west of Portage la Prairie.

About 30 per cent of the photos from his new exhibit are from his farm. In his previous show, Eyes Wide Open, in 2006, nearly all the photos were from his farm or within a 10-kilometre radius.

He avoids shooting sites such as the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, or "the iconic, dramatic mountain, lake, sunset, picture," as he calls them, because "they're well-covered. The iconic images of travel you can find anywhere. It's the local beauty that's unique."

Shooting in black and white was also a new venture for him. "With a lot of images, there's less distraction in black and white... especially if the colours don't work together."

"He just has an eye for seeing simple beauty in everyday life," said Lori Blight, executive director of the Portage art centre.

One of his most striking photos is of a drop of early morning dew about to fall from a line of fence wire.

In another photo, a fence post in the snow seems forlorn and shivering from the elements. "I think I'm drawn to simplicity more and more as I grow older," he explained.

Another photo is of raindrops in a creek. "I go to nature to be soothed and healed and to have my senses put in order," he wrote in one blurb. Most photos sell for $150 each, with a handful of very large photos going for up to $800.

The Portage and District Arts Centre is open Tuesday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.

bill.redekop@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 18, 2014 A10

History

Updated on Saturday, January 18, 2014 at 12:35 PM CST: Changes headline, adds slideshow

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