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 )

Sold for $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

Kurelek was the son of Ukrainian immigrant farmers. He grew up during the Great Depression on a grain farm in Alberta and then a dairy farm in Manitoba. His hard-working father thought that his son was lazy and was not pleased when he decided to pursue his studies in art. His father's rejection was to haunt him all of his life. Kurelek studied art at the University of Manitoba where he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in 1949. He worked in lumber camps to raise money for his art studies and did other odd jobs. He then studied six months at the Ontario College of Art but found he needed more freedom to develop at his own pace and interest, preferring to teach himself through books.

He sailed for England in 1952 where he found a happier environment, a more tolerant acceptance for what he wanted to paint. He also apprenticed himself to a picture framer, Frederick Pollock, from whom he learned this exacting craft. 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.

He returned to Toronto in 1959, and visited Avrom Isaacs, looking for a job as picture framer. It was his paintings which caught the eye if Isaacs, who became his art dealer. In 1960, Kurelek held his first one man show at the Isaacs Gallery. By the time of his death in 1977, Kurelek had produced over 2000 paintings. Many of Kurelek's painting were produced to accompany books for children. For these he won several awards including the New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Book Award for A Prairie Boy's Winter and Lumberjack, and the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians Illustrators Award for A Prairie Boy's Summer.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979