William Kurelek: Born on a Farm in Alberta to Ukrainian Immigrants, Kurelek Painted Charming, Poignant, and Often Humorous Scenes from the Everyday Lives of Canadians

Americas (English Edition), March-April 2012 | Go to article overview

William Kurelek: Born on a Farm in Alberta to Ukrainian Immigrants, Kurelek Painted Charming, Poignant, and Often Humorous Scenes from the Everyday Lives of Canadians


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Canadian artist William Kurelek (1927-1977), best-known for his paintings of the prairies and nostalgic scenes of farm life and childhood, is sometimes described as a folk artist along the lines of the American Grandma Moses. However, many of his works are darker and more complex than his popular pieces suggest. A midnight battle between gangs of Irish-Canadian and Polish-Canadian men, atomic bombs destroying Ontario cities, and Indian beggars infiltrating the grounds of a posh Toronto golf club are just some of the unexpected images you'll find in his less-familiar work.

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During the 1960s and 1970s, abstract art was all the rage. "Technique" was everything and "messages" were considered passe Kurelek bucked these trends and created representational art to address social issues that, while deeply Canadian, were universal as well. What's more, the questions he raised remain relevant today. Kurelek tackled subjects such as the immigrant experience, poverty, and the environment, often from a unique and occasionally eccentric point of view.

In just three decades, Kurelek produced more than 2,000 paintings and countless drawings. You'll find his art in diverse settings: the National Gallery of Canada, Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Ontario, The Niagara Falls Art Gallery (which was created to house his Passion of St. Matthew series), and The Museum of Modern Art in New York City, as well as in church murals, on a stamp and in children's books. One disturbing painting, The Maze, which he did while undergoing psychiatric treatment, even appears on the cover of the 1981 Van Halen album Fair Warnings.

Many of his paintings remain in private collections. Some of these rarely-seen works are on display this year in a touring exhibit organized jointly by public galleries in Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Victoria. William Kurelek: The Messenger features 85 paintings from public and private collections in the largest retrospective of his work to date, says Andrew Kear, curator of historical Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and co-curator of this exhibition.

If you want to trace the roots of the common themes of Kurelek's work, you could start with his family background. Born in 1927 on a farm in Alberta, Kurelek moved to another farm outside of Winnipeg Manitoba when he was seven. His father had immigrated to Canada from the Ukraine, while his mother's family, also Ukrainian, had settled in Canada much earlier. Kurelek grew up caught between two cultures: Ukrainian and Canadian. One of his first challenges came in kindergarten where he was expected to communicate in English. At first, he knew only a few words of it because his parents spoke Ukrainian at home. This instilled in Kurelek a sense of being "different" that never really left him.

Kurelek also felt isolated and persecuted in childhood because he and his father were often at odds. His father counted on him to help with the farm chores, especially during World War II when there was a shortage of farmhands. In his autobiography Someone with Me, Kurelek recalls his clumsiness and how his father criticized his work. In addition, Kurelek wanted to be an artist but his father wanted his children to "make it" in Canada by pursuing careers like medicine or law or teaching. Luckily for Kurelek, teachers recognized his artistic talent and encouraged him.

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Although people often describe Kurelek's paintings as "folk art," this is oversimplified, says Andrew Kear, who offers another term instead: "manufactured naivete." Kurelek did in fact have some academic art training. After completing a BA in Latin, History, and English, he studied art in Mexico and at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto (although he didn't complete his degree), and then moved to London, England where he took evening courses. He also copied works of the masters in galleries in Mexico and Europe. …

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