William Kurelek

Canadian painter, Member of Order of Canada

William Kurelek

William Kurelek, a Canadian painter, was born in 1927 in Alberta, from a Ukrainian immigrant family. In the challenging economic context of the 1930s, following the Great Depression, the family moved to a farm in Manitoba in 1934. William then went to public school where, despite his timidity, he achieved good results. Anxious and retired, he hardly endorses the pressure of being the eldest son and does little to meet the expectations of his father. Their relationship will be bitter for many years.

In 1943, Kurelek moved to Winnipeg, a cosmopolitan city with a large number of Ukrainian immigrants. Then he moved again, back to Manitoba, pursued his studies, and became interested in literature. During these years, he managed to decide on his path: he wanted to be an artist, despite the paternal opposition. It was also during this same period that the first signs of psychophysical disorders appeared.

The family moved to Ontario in 1948 and Kurelek joined the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. However, he does not like the competitive atmosphere that prevails and leaves for the Allende Institute in San Migual in Mexico. His stay led him to develop and mature his style. As soon as he returned to Canada, considering the medical system impotent to solve his health problems, he left for England where he was admitted to the Maydsley psychiatric hospital in London in 1952.  He use his creativity as an outlet, re-establish himself enough to work and even to travel a bit through Europe. Unfortunately, his condition deteriorated again, he returned to the hospital the following year. In 1954, after an unsuccessful attempt at suicide, a physician encouraged him "... to discard his introspective tendencies and to turn himself instead to the objective study of simple objects, creating several accomplished trompe-l'oeil paintings (...) "(Andrew Kear, https://www.aci-iac.ca/william-kurelek/biography). He also became a fervent Catholic believer. Following a pilgrimage, he returned to Canada and hoped to resolve his family conflicts, without any real success.

Kurelek returned definitely to Canada in 1959. He met Avrom Isaacs, a Toronto gallery owner who first offered him a job as a framer and then held his first solo exhibition a year later. The criticism is positive and the reception of the audience, excellent. This relationship artist-gallery will last 18 years.

By the mid-1960s Kurelek was rekindling his love for his Canadian prairie birthplace. He was spurred to make recurring sketching trips throughout Western Canada and the Maritimes, Arctic, and Pacific Coast in subsequent years. This joyous, inspired nationalism emanates from The Painter, 1974, a late self-portrait in which Kurelek sets himself en plein air, in the red Volkswagen Beetle that served as transport, motel room, and painting studio during many of his sketching expeditions.34  These cross-country voyages witnessed the reintroduction of photography as an artistic aid, a medium Kurelek first integrated in his creative practice when travelling through the Middle East in 1959. (Andrew Kear, https://www.aci-iac.ca/william-kurelek/biographie)

In the 1970s when his reputation was no longer in doubt, he began to accompany his artworks with texts that became classics of Canadian children's literature. Kurelek travelled to Ukraine for the first time in 1970. He briefly visited his family’s ancestral village of Borivtsi, despite being under close surveillance by Soviet authorities. The trip inspired the monumental The Ukrainian Pioneer, 1971, 1976. With the advent of multiculturalism, Kurelek’s interests expanded to include other language, ethnic, and religious groups in Canada. Before his death he completed series about the Inuit, as well as Jewish-, French-, Polish-, and Irish-Canadians. (Andrew Kear, https://www.aci-iac.ca/william-kurelek/biographie)

William Kurelek died of cancer at the age of 50 years.

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