Artwork by William Kurelek,  Mexican Coconut Factory

William Kurelek
Mexican Coconut Factory

mixed media on board
signed with initials lower right; titled on the reverse
12.25 x 5.5 ins ( 31.1 x 14 cms )

Auction Estimate: $9,000.00$7,000.00 - $9,000.00

Price Realized $11,520.00
Sale date: March 30th 2021

Isaacs Gallery Ltd., Toronto
Collection of a Prominent Estate, Toronto
William Kurelek, “Someone With Me”, Cornell University, Ithaca, 1973, page 225, 258 and 272
While enrolled at the Ontario College of Art in 1949, Kurelek grew dissatisfied with the emphasis on academic performance and hierarchy. It was in 1950 that he decided to set out and study art in Mexico. In his autobiography, “Someone With Me”, Kurelek explains this realization to find himself as an artist in Mexico: “In the art books which our O.C.A. inner group discussed were illustrations of Mexican artists’ works. The seemed to have something to offer. Things were really ferment there, I thought, and my friends urged me to give Mexico a try.”

Living mainly in San Miguel while studying at the Instituto Allende under Sterling Dickenson, Kurelek also travelled to Mexico City and Tampico along the Gulf of Mexico. Though faced with difficulties fitting in with his peers in a foreign county, it was during the end of his tenure in Mexico that Kurelek began to appreciate the experience. He notes that “the Mexico adventure was a great growing-up experience nevertheless, well worth the time and what little expense I put into it…my geographical horizon was pushed back dramatically.”

While journeying back to Canada, Kurelek made his way by bus to Tampico, along the Gulf of Mexico. A well-connected port city, the location offered a geostrategic point for import and export business for the economy and was a hub for agricultural products like bananas and coconuts. Kurelek notes, “The palm trees and banana plantations in the coastal regions were the closest I was to come to jungle that time. One of my dreams of my joyous life of freedom and romance was the experience of immersing myself in a jungle.”

The work captures some hallmarks of Kurelek’s practice—the play of horizon line, layered foregrounds and textured paint surface. The bright tall palm tree focuses the viewer and draws the eye down to the large pile of coconuts at the base of the shack. Though only a short period of time was spent in Mexico, the time spent in a foreign country made a lasting impression on the artist as he frequently recalled these experiences in his drawings and painted works.

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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 mother’s family settled in Canada during one of the first waves of Ukrainian immigration in 1899 before the painter’s father arrived in Alberta from Western Ukraine during the second major wave 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 (