Artwork by William Kurelek,  Ukrainian Proverb

William Kurelek
Ukrainian Proverb

mixed media on board
signed with initials lower right, inscribed “He who chases two rabbits at the same time catches neither” in Ukrainian and English; dated 1974 and titled (twice) on the reverse
10 x 4.5 ins ( 25.4 x 11.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $20,000.00$15,000.00 - $20,000.00

Price Realized $41,400.00
Sale date: November 28th 2014

Gift of the artist
Private Collection, Toronto
Avrom Isaacs, “Knowing Kurelek”, “William Kurelek: The Messenger”, Altona, Manitoba, 2011, page 20
William Kurelek, “A Prairie Boy's Winter”, Montreal, 1973, pages 14 and 42

“A Prairie Boy's Winter” closes with a brief passage describing William Kurelek's formative years, raised on a “dairy farm in Manitoba, not far from the United States border”, the setting for the majority of the artist's most celebrated work depicting life on the Canadian prairies. When Kurelek enrolled in high school in the city age sixteen, “he was eager to tell his new friends about his adventures living close to nature.” However, “no one seemed interested in listening and it was many years before Kurelek found a way to hold an audience – through his pictures.”

Kurelek's gift as a storyteller is arguably the trait which most captivates his admirers, the painter expertly weaving meaning through his work, often conveying his passionate point of view related to his personal life, his faith or his Ukrainian heritage. Not uncommon with many of Kurelek's most celebrated paintings, “Ukrainian Proverb” dabbles effectively in all three. The setting and activity is reminiscent of Kurelek's youth (the artist wrote of snaring jack-rabbits with his brother, John, on the “frozen sea of snow that stretched across farmlands broken only by barbed-wire fences...”), while the proverb (inscribed in both English and Ukrainian) provides a well-known passage which broadcasts a simple, but moral message. As the rabbits sprint into the foreground and towards the horizon, the child's greed leaves him sprawling and empty-handed, chin digging into the icy snow, the lesson his only catch.

Av Isaacs, Kurelek's Toronto dealer, noted that the painter's “genius was the gift he had of an endless supply of stored literal images. He had a warehouse of images that were crystal clear in his mind”, an inventory of countless stories ready to be told. Isaacs recalls that Kurelek “had so much to say that he allowed himself only five hours a night to sleep. When I questioned this, he replied that he would have plenty of time to rest in the next world.”

“Ukrainian Proverb” was acquired by the parents of the current owner as a gift from Kurelek. The family would provide fresh garden vegetables and homemade pastries to their neighbour, a professional photographer, in return for photographs of the children and grandchildren. During one such visit to the photographer, they met Kurelek, who tasted their apple strudel and declared it to be “as good or better” than his mother's. The parents crossed the street and returned with a basket full of the strudel, a gift to the artist. A couple of days later, the artist arrived on the consignor's doorstep, delivering “Ukrainian Proverb” as a gift in response to their generosity. The identity of the artist was not discussed by the family, the artwork hanging prominently in the family home for decades, a sentimental token of a memorable encounter with a friendly artist (with great taste).
Discovered during a Consignor Valuation Day event, “Ukrainian Proverb” and the incredible story of its acquisition captured media attention across the country, leading to the small painting more than doubling its opening bid.

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William Kurelek
(1927 - 1977) RCA

Born on a farm near Willingdon, Alberta in 1927, William Kurelek created paintings that explored the reality of farm life during the Depression, with a focus on Ukrainian experiences in Canada. Kurelek’s mother’s family settled in Canada during one of the first waves of Ukrainian immigration in 1899 before the painter’s father arrived in Alberta from Western Ukraine during the second major wave to the province in 1923. In 1934, Kurelek’s family moved to Manitoba, near Winnipeg, due to falling grain prices and a fire that destroyed their home. Upon moving to Manitoba, Kurelek began attending school at the Victoria Public School.

Influenced by the apprehension surrounding the Depression, World War I, and the instability of farming, Kurelek focused on his studies. However, his father did not approve. While Kurelek’s father valued physical labor on the farm, Kurelek concentrated on school and drawing, which caused tension in his household. As a child, Kurelek covered his room in drawings from literature, dreams, and hallucinations. At school, Kurelek’s classmates were enthralled by his stories and drawings.

In 1943, Kurelek and his brother attended Isaac Newton High School in Winnipeg. While in Winnipeg, he frequented Ukrainian cultural classes offered by St. Mary the Protectress. In 1946, Kurelek enrolled in the University of Manitoba studying Latin, English, and history. While in university, Kurelek’s mental health spiraled, which he later self-identified as depersonalization.

After university, in 1948, Kurelek’s family relocated to a farm near Hamilton, Ontario. The next fall, in 1949, Kurelek began studying at the Ontario College of Art working towards a career in commercial advertising. While in school he was uninterested in the competitiveness and emphasis on earning high grades. So, he decided to study with David Alfaro Siqueiros in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. During his hitchhike to Mexico, Kurelek experienced his first mystical experience while sleeping in the Arizona desert. In this vision, a robed figure asked him to look after his sheep. Upon his arrival to Mexico, Kurelek learned that Siqueiros had departed, and the program was under new direction by Sterling Dickinson. Dickinson’s program was more informal and allowed Kurelek to become aware of social issues and develop his belief system.

Kurelek returned to Canada in 1951 and traveled to England in 1952 where he was admitted into a psychiatric treatment center at London’s Maudsley Hospital. The doctors noted the severity of his illness as well as his artistic talent. After his discharge, Kurelek traveled throughout Europe to view works by Northern Renaissance painters, such as Jan van Eyck and Hieronymus Bosh. In 1953, Kurelek was readmitted into Maudsley, then transferred to Netherne Hospital in Surrey, which had a cutting-edge therapy program. He continued to paint during this time. In early 1955, Kurelek was discharged and returned to London where he worked at an art framing studio, apprenticing with Frederick Pollock.

“Stephen Franklin in ’Weekend Magazine’ described his years in England as follows, ‘In seven years Kurelek found both happiness and sadness in London. His painstaking fool-the-eye paintings of pound notes and other objects found their way into three Royal Academy summer shows, but he was increasingly bothered by eye trouble for which there was no physical cause. He plumbed the depth of emotional despair, contemplated suicide, and wound up in hospital for more than a year. It was here that he began his conversion – from boyhood membership in the Orthodox Church and subsequent atheism – to Catholicism which has deeply affected his life since.’

It was there that he drew many self-portraits and scenes of farm life from his youth. He also developed his unique style of outlining the drawing with a ballpoint pen, using coloured pencils for texture and adding details in pen. Careful examination of his drawings reveals images full of realism with minute details of things like cots, clothes and even insects. Under the pen of William Kurelek, prairie farm scenes and landscapes came to life.”

Kurelek permanently returned to Canada in 1959. Later that year he met Avrom Isaacs, of Isaacs Gallery, who invited him to work in his gallery’s frame shop and hosted his first solo exhibition in 1960. In 1962, Kurelek married Jean Andrews and they relocated to the Beaches area in Toronto. Following the Cuban Missile Crisis, he began painting in a “fire and brimstone” style and constructed a fallout shelter in his basement, which eventually became his studio. He visited Ukraine in 1970 and 1977 and during this period he took a multicultural approach to his art. After his second trip to Ukraine he was admitted to St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto and soon passed away from cancer.

Literature Sources:
Andrew Kear, “William Kurelek: Life and Work”, Art Canada Institute, Toronto, 2017 (