Artwork by William Kurelek,  Threshing Outfit Being Brought Lunch

William Kurelek
Threshing Outfit Being Brought Lunch

mixed media on board
signed with monogram and dated 1972 lower right; titled on the reverse
5 x 15.5 ins ( 12.7 x 39.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $70,000.00$50,000.00 - $70,000.00

Price Realized $82,600.00
Sale date: November 20th 2018

Provenance:
Purchased directly from the artist in 1972
By descent to the present Private Collection, Toronto
Literature:
William Kurelek, A Prairie’s Boy’s Summer, Toronto, 1975, unpaginated
Avrom Isaacs and Ramsay Cook, Kurelek Country: The Art of William Kurelek, Toronto, 1999, page 6
William Kurelek recalled that work on his family’s farm could not only be strenuous but also lonely, his parents, siblings and fellow workers often spread across vast distances as they completed their individual duties through long hours. The days were especially exhausting during the summer months as the prairie sun hung high for the longest period of the year and the Kurelek children did not have school as an escape. The demands of the season’s targets meant that there was no time for breaks, William noting that the “only excuse for stopping was when Nancy brought out some water or lunch.” Given Kurelek’s recollection of the work and isolation related to daily farm responsibilities and the relief of his sister’s arrival with sustenance, it is not surprising that the painter would depict such a welcome occasion within “Threshing Outfit Being Brought Lunch”. Kurelek treats the viewer not only to the anticipated relief within a backbreaking day, but also to the detailed spectacle of the work itself, Kurelek noting that “A threshing scene is exciting even at a distance.”

The monumental arrival of the mother and young children is a welcome one within this expansive panoramic gem. The woman’s bright orange skirt and tunic may have caught the eye of the laborers initially, each worker facing the small convoy, but their probable focus is the large box, heavy cooler and bags of nourishment to be delivered. The richly colourful composition captures the tasks still in progress: a horse-drawn hay wagon arrives into the left side of the scene, while the thresher continues launching grain as a child feeds it hay, supervised by the boy’s father in a waiting wagon to the side. Common within Kurelek’s intensely-detailed prairie farming scenes, the long, clouded horizon introduces further minute details, as two additional teams toil through the initial chores of the haying process among the stooked field within the right side of the landscape. The representation of the array of complimentary tasks are evidence of a very busy July day, making the arrival of a hearty lunch that much more welcome.

From the age of twelve, Kurelek and his brother John were recruited by their father to perform crucial and challenging chores on the farm. An early start for the demanding routine for the children, the assignments were essential as the Kureleks had lost many of their hired hands to the war effort. Although his initial years of work on the family farm were met with regular frustration and criticism from his father, William’s confidence and skill grew over time and he became a steady member of the team. As he toiled on the heavy machinery, he dreamed of the day he would begin grade ten, as his father had promised Kurelek that he and John could then attend high school in the city. William envisioned life at school in Winnipeg, surrounded by fellow students who would be mesmerized by his tales. To his dismay, William found that his peers had other interests and were not intrigued by his stories of rural Manitoba. It would be years later that Kurelek would discover an engaged audience to share his recollections of his formative experiences on the Canadian prairies. The enthusiasm from Toronto art dealer Av Issacs upon seeing Kurelek’s paintings during their first meeting came with the immediate offer of an exhibition in the gallery. The sensational reaction from Isaacs and the attendees to Kurelek’s first exhibition in 1960 “so affected him that it seemed to trigger an effect similar to the opening up of the floodgates in a dam. Paintings began to pour out of him.” The storyteller had found his audience.

Shortly after moving to Toronto from Winnipeg to attend college in 1972, the original owner of this artwork attended the opening of an exhibition of William Kurelek’s work at Isaacs Gallery. Having an opportunity to speak with Kurelek, the student told the artist of her admiration of his work and her hope to one day be able to afford one of his paintings. As the evening reception began to wind down, Kurelek pulled her aside and provided his phone number with instructions to give him a call in the days which followed. The student called the painter and Kurelek let her know that he was currently facing a family medical emergency, causing a financial strain. The painter offered to create an artwork at a cost reduced from his gallery pricing. The opportunity was happily accepted and Kurelek inquired as to the type of composition she would like him to paint. Born and raised on the prairies and sharing Ukrainian heritage with the artist, she asked Kurelek to create a scene that would remind her of her origins and her grandparents’ farm. Two weeks later, William Kurelek called with an invitation to meet and present the painting. “Threshing Outfit Being Brought Lunch” has remained in the family until this offering.

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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)