Artwork by William Kurelek,  The Grouse Mountain Sky Ride

William Kurelek
The Grouse Mountain Sky Ride

mixed media on board
signed with initials and dated 1973 lower right; titled on a gallery label on the reverse
30 x 18 ins ( 76.2 x 45.7 cms )

Sold for $60,000.00
Sale date: June 9th 2021

Provenance:
Isaacs Gallery Ltd., Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto
Literature:
Avrom Isaacs, “Knowing Kurelek”, William Kurelek: The Messenger, Altona, Manitoba, 2011, page 20
William Kurelek depicted countless scenes of diverse individuals, events and locations across Canada, from the everyday to the extraordinary. A prolific artist, he completed well over 2,000 paintings and drawings before his premature death in 1977. The Canadian landscape had emerged as a dominant subject in the work of the Alberta-born, Manitoba-raised artist after he resettled in Toronto from England in 1959. The same year, he met Avrom Isaacs, of Isaacs Gallery, who invited him to work in his gallery’s frame shop and hosted Kurelek’s first solo exhibition in 1960. In 1962, Kurelek married Jean Andrews and they relocated to the Beaches area in Toronto. By the middle of the decade, in the wake of the country’s Centennial, his landscapes began assuming a more nationalistic tenor. What distinguished Kurelek’s nationalist vision from that of previous Canadian artists was the emphasis he placed on regional and multicultural diversity.

“The Grouse Mountain Sky Ride” by Kurelek depicts the summer activities of the popular Vancouver ski destination Grouse Mountain Resort. The mixed media work is an example of the unique subject matter Kurelek would choose to paint, continuously finding fresh perspectives on well-known Canadian locations. Av Isaacs 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 recalled 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.”

After a fire destroyed the original Grouse Mountain ski lodge in the winter of 1962, the government of British Columbia provided funding and permits for a new lodge and aerial tramway travelling to the mountaintop from the valley below. The tramway, known as the Blue Tram, and later as the Skyride, was opened and inaugurated on December 15, 1966. In Kurelek’s 1973 painting we see the newly built Blue Tram ascending the wooded slope. Today, the Grouse Mountain resort operates two aerial tramways, the Blue Tram and the Red Tram, which is known officially as the Super Skyride.

Kurelek, who spent his youth on a farm in the Prairies, was no doubt highly impressed by the lush landscape and tall trees of British Columbia, which he depicts in this artwork filled with greenery. “The Grouse Mountain Sky Ride” was painted in 1973, shortly after the artist exhibited his Toronto Series at The Isaacs Gallery the previous fall, and thus was looking for inspiration from new Canadian terrain. He would later go on to create the Montreal Revisited Series in 1975. “The Grouse Mountain Sky Ride” serves as a testament of how the artist valued and reflected on all facets of our multicultural national identity.

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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)