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 )

Sold for $82,600.00
Sale date: November 20th 2018

Purchased directly from the artist in 1972
By descent to the present Private Collection, Toronto
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

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