That mobile staple of Alberta highways, the pickup truck, becomes a spiritual metaphor in the latest art exhibit at Red Deer’s Kiwanis Gallery.
All kinds of rigs — from semi tractor trailers to water tankers — are featured in the Highways of Alberta: Paintings by Greg Pyra in the gallery operated by the Red Deer Arts Council in the Red Deer Public Library.
But the Hanna-based artist didn’t paint them for their chrome trim and horsepower strength.
Pyra was interested in metaphorically conveying a spiritual journey as undertaken in Siddhartha, an influential novel by Hermann Hesse. The title character in the book gains spiritual insight after being encouraged by a ferryman to listen to river sounds.
Pyra, a school teacher with a masters degree in fine art from the University of Calgary, tried visiting every ferry dock in Alberta, but found the few that remain in use didn’t inspire him to put paint to canvas.
He then started thinking about what could stand in for a ferry in this province. “I thought, what about the car as an alternative?”
The idea solidified while he was driving home one night. “It was so dark the land was merging with the sky,” he recalled. “There was a feeling you were travelling through space and time…”
It occurred to Pyra that every vehicle passenger is a traveller who can focus on points of light on the journey.
Light might emanate from gas stations or fast food joints along the highway. Both are realistically rendered by the artist, who has exhibited across Canada and explored the same theme of spirituality in abstract works (although none are in this show).
Light can also radiate from vehicle headlights, as in his painting An Evening Descends, in which diffused pools of light from a pickup truck create tepid circles of warmth on a wintry night.
Or it can shine from the horizon. Pyra considers twilight an ideal time to contemplate “quiet moments (in which) we have time to appreciate life’s gifts.” He depicts the setting sun casting a pinkish glow in Spring Melt, Spring Thaw, and Twilight Meditation on Red.
By making a plain stucco house the centre of A Place in My Heart, or a solitary commercial building the focal point of 2nd Ave., Dusk, Pyra can comment on another subject dear to his heart — disappearing rural towns.
With industries, such as Hanna’s coal mine and coal-powered power plant slated for closure, he notes people in his own community could soon be forced to migrate to large cities for work, leaving more rural structures abandoned.
Western Canada, because of fast-paced development, has done less to preserve its heritage than other parts of the country, he observed, adding “I am not painting lovely scenes. These are scenes of isolation and decay …”
Yet they cause viewers to pause and gaze for longer than they might otherwise look at images of trucks and gas stations. Pyra believes most people instinctively realize his paintings are about more than just what’s on the canvas.
“The spiritual journey is part of a magnificent search in our life. It is within,” he writes in his artist statement.
But it can also be glimpsed in his painting of a backlit vehicle that’s almost consumed by the fiery red glare of a sunset. The work is titled: “Each of us is at the centre of this continuum of life.”
The Highways of Alberta exhibit continues to Aug. 21. There will be two First Friday opening: July 8 and Aug. 5, both from 6-8 p.m.