Artwork by William Kurelek,  Geese Flying South, Coniston, Ontario

William Kurelek
Geese Flying South, Coniston, Ontario

mixed media on board
signed with monogram and dated 1966 lower right
12.5 x 24.25 ins ( 31.8 x 61.6 cms )

Auction Estimate: $30,000.00$20,000.00 - $30,000.00

Price Realized $23,000.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2016

Provenance:
Mayberry Fine Art, Winnipeg
Private Collection
Literature:
Patricia Morley, “Kurelek’s Sudbury Diaries,” “Literature and the Visual Arts Special Issue of Canadian Literature,” Issue 113-114, Summer/ Autumn 1987, pages 264-65
The town of Coniston is located about ten kilometers from Sudbury. Patricia Morley explains that the Northern Ontario landscape was dear to William Kurelek as it connected with his religious faith. The terrain reminded him “of the Judean wilderness where Christ fasted for forty days.” Writing to his wife Jean during his second visit to the area in 1966, Kurelek conveyed his understanding that he could not make a great deal of his work “openly religious as I would like because then they wouldn’t be saleable.”

However, Kurelek wrote further that he considered including subtle objects or notations within his compositions which would not immediately draw attention. “I think I’ll try slipping in religious symbols into them so that a prospective buyer is not bothered by them.” True to his word, Kurelek painted “Geese Flying South, Coniston, Ontario” during this visit and the scene features the inclusion of a tiny crown of thorns in the lower right corner, blending within the sculpted rocky foreground upon initial examination.

During the trip, Kurelek forgot to bring along two of his usual tools of creation, the painter relating the error and resulting challenges: “I had quite a bit of trouble rendering fog because I forgot my atomizer. Another thing I forgot to bring is sandpaper for sharpening my razor blades for scratching our highlights and rendering grassy areas... [The terrain] has many round boulders of various tints that make them look somewhat like jelly bean candies. I took artists licence to heighten the colours a bit...If I wanted to be fanatically precise I could spend a whole day working on a piece of rock no bigger than I could hold in my hand.”

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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 parents immigrated from Western Ukraine to Alberta during the second major wave of Ukrainian immigration 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 (https://aci-iac.ca/art-books/william-kurelek)