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December 20, 2012

Artist William Kurelek’s Resurrection

The artist, author, and multi award winning personality William Kurelek who died in 1977 leaving an incredible 2000 paintings has recently had a remarkable reappearance on the Canadian art scene.  For a man who struggled with mental problems and poverty he has had a recent renaissance.  Last week 15 of his paintings sold at auction for 1.4 million dollars. 

I have followed his career on occasion over the years and have read his autobiography and 340 page biography along with his many books. His 1974 book “Lumberjacks” is a favorite. 

In his early days as the oldest of 7 children of a Ukranian family on the prairies this remarkably bright and artistic child had trouble with farm life and a domineering father.  He always topped his class and eventually got a degree and attended art school. 

Kurelek’s painting “Nativity”

He ended up in England in his mid twenties where he suffered extreme depression and was diagnosed as " schizophrenic"  He attempted suicide and went through shock treatment and rehabilitation.  He ended up making picture frames for a period.  His rehabilitation took place in a Catholic context even though he was not religious.  He became an ardent Catholic and started to paint again.   

When he returned to Canada he went to Canada’s top private art gallery Isaccs looking for a framing job which he got.  Some of his sample frames included some of his painting and the gallery owner was interested in them and he soon had a show of his realistic work.  He had shows every couple of years threafter with alternate ones with a religious theme. 

His paintings were very folksy and realistic in an era where abstract expressionism was burgeoning.  Some people came just to his shows and others to the modern paintings. 

He married and had 4 children and continued with his framing work.  He began to write and lecture and painted rapidly often working all night.  He became interested in a Catholic retreat in Cobermere and attended regularly eventually buying property nearby. 

My interest in Kurlek increased when my wife graduated from art school in 1968 and Isaacs asked to see her large abstract paintings.  In an era where few women showed he asked her to have solo exhibition of 15 of her large works.  He had Kurelek stretch and frame her work and she got to know him.  One of his exhibitions was held immediately prior to her show.  Both shows sold out.  

This past summer a major retrospective of Kurelek’s work was held in Winnipeg, Hamilton, and Victoria.  During the show a film on Kurelek made for an American psychology professor came to the surface.  It was based on an apocalyptic painting Kurelek painted in England while in therapy.  The filmmakers  added new material  to the film and began to show it to much interest.  It was shown in Toronto in November at the Bell Light Box where the Toronto International Film Festival is held.  My wife and I attended the sold out performance and panel discussion.  We met one of Kurelek’s framing partners.  The experience renewed our interest in him. 

Kurelek died of cancer at age 50 in 1977.  Isaccs who remained close to him oversees his estate.  Isaccs after retiring after 50 years as a gallery owner had a major exhibition in several venues in 2005.  A book with an overview of his career was published.  We saw the shows and have a copy of the book which he signed and wrote  “Fond Memories” and remembered my wifes  sold out show.  There were numerous Kurelek photos in the book.  There is an excellent collection of Kurelek books in the North Bay Library including his autobiography and a biography.  To my surprise the W.O. Mitchel classic Who Has Seen the Wind with 8 of Kurelek’s paintings and 32 drawings was in the library dated June 2012.  Apparently it was recently acquired and is a gem.  There is much on line on Kurelek for those interested in his remarkable story packed into a brief life. 

One of Kurelek’s paintings “Nativity” is shown here.  I note that the Chisholm United Church will have an event like the painting at 230 on Saunday December 16 with carols, refreshments and a crèche in the barn at the Dockendorf farm at 1162 Pioneer Road in Chisholm Township.  Everyone welcome.


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