Artwork by William Kurelek,  Brian Dedora in Isaacs Gallery Old Workshop

William Kurelek
Brian Dedora in Isaacs Gallery Old Workshop

pen, ink and wash on card
signed with monogram and dated 1976 lower right; dated 1976 and inscribed “Brian in the Old Workshop” on the reverse of the support; titled and inscribed “pen and ink and wash” in the artist’s hand on a label affixed to the reverse of the framing
18.5 x 13.5 ins ( 47 x 34.3 cms ) ( subject )

Auction Estimate: $40,000.00$30,000.00 - $40,000.00

Price Realized $31,200.00
Sale date: June 15th 2022

Gift of the artist to Brian Dedora, Toronto (in 1976)
Emmett Maddix quoted in Patricia Morley, “Kurelek: A Biography”, Toronto, 1986, page 158
William Kurelek, quoted in Joan Murray, “Kurelek’s Vision of Canada”, Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, 1982, page 71
Kurelek, “Someone With Me: The Autobiography of William Kurelek”, Toronto, 1980, page 159
William Kurelek, “Someone With Me: The Autobiography of William Kurelek”, Ithaca, New York, 1973, pages 503-4
Brian Dedora, ‘The Necessary Frame: William Kurelek as Picture Framer,’ “William Kurelek: The Messenger”, Art Gallery of Hamilton, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, Winnipeg Art Gallery, 2011, pages 179-80
William Kurelek was one of Canada’s most idiosyncratic artists of the twentieth century. His work remains both critically acclaimed and popular, although Kurelek resisted ideas of artistic exceptionalism and genius. A self-identified “craftsman” or “picture maker,” he was not a “painter’s painter.” He saw himself rather anachronistically as a modern medieval illuminator, someone who “wasn’t so awfully conscious of art or of being an artist.” Kurelek created a vast catalogue of paintings and drawings with the practical purpose of memorializing events from his own life and illustrating the stories of others.

He was born east of Edmonton in 1927, into a family with roots tracing back to western Ukraine. His parents had their first three children, including William, in Alberta before the family relocated to a dairy farm north of Winnipeg. Kurelek went on to study history and literature at the University of Manitoba, before enrolling at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto. Restless and unsatisfied, he soon left the OCA and began travelling, eventually sailing to England, where he remained for nearly a decade. His time in London was deeply formative. Kurelek underwent psychiatric treatment, converted to Roman Catholicism, and worked at one of England’s best framing workshops, F.A. Pollak Ltd. Over his two years at Pollak’s, which he considered “a continuation of art school,” Kurelek developed the skillset that helped sustain a livelihood when he returned permanently to Canada in 1959 and shaped his subsequent approach to art and life.

Back in Toronto, virtually unknown, Kurelek’s star began its meteoric rise. He received his first solo exhibition in 1960 at the important Isaacs Gallery. His paintings were soon acquired by major institutions, including the National Gallery of Canada, Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Museum of Modern Art. He was also hired as a framer at Isaacs. According to fellow framer Emmett Maddix, Kurelek went on to become “one of the top gilders in Canada.” He began custom framing his own work as well, introducing colourful Ukrainian folk designs, salvaged barnboard, and integrating images and details echoed in his paintings. Kurelek’s frames would sometimes take longer to craft than the artwork itself. Although his formal employment at Isaacs ended in 1970, Kurelek continued to use the workshop to make his own frames throughout the decade until his death in 1977.

“The Isaacs Gallery Workshop” is a 1973 ink drawing, once owned by gallerist Avrom Isaacs (1926-2016), that is now in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario. The image is a cobbled puzzle of clarion particulars. The scene includes three workshop employees: Kurelek himself, seasoned cabinetmaker Stan Beecham, and the young upstart framer, Brian Dedora. Dedora, who apprenticed with Kurelek for six years beginning in 1970, went on to become a master gilder and remained in the trade for nearly 40 years.

In 1976 Kurelek completed “Brian in the Old Workshop”, a cropped version of the AGO drawing. It focuses solely on Dedora, bent over cutting glass. Writing with his insider’s perspective in 2011, Dedora orients the viewer in the space and to the workshop’s culture:

[The] finishing room is behind the viewer. Above the entrance to the fitting room, Kurelek painted Edgar Allan Poe’s famous bird who continually responded “Nevermore” in the poem “The Raven”. [Stan] Beecham, being British, referred to our workrooms as ends, hence the raven is at the entrance to the “fitting end.”

The 1976 drawing includes many of the same details as the earlier work, including Poe’s raven. However, the 1976 drawing has several notable differences. It incorporates greater wash treatment than the AGO work, in which value is largely rendered with linear and cross- hatching. The Inuit sculpture in the 1976 drawing points with more accusatory weight at the young glass cutter, who now appears in a checkered shirt. Finally, of course, the title of the cropped 1976 work identifies Dedora by name, thus making the drawing more of a portrait than a genre scene.

In April 2022 Brian Dedora spoke with Andrew Kear about his relationship to William Kurelek, his time at the Isaacs Gallery Workshop, and the drawing “Brian in the Old Workshop”.

AK: You started working at the Isaacs Gallery workshop in 1970. When did you first meet William Kurelek?

BD: I was in Toronto. There was a little gallery on Young Street called the Gutenberg Gallery. And I heard from a Carl Gutenberg, the guy who owned the place, that there was an opening in the framing department at Isaacs. And so, on a Saturday after a beer—I needed some courage—I wandered up to meet Av Isaacs. I said, “I heard that you need a fitter. I am a fitter, and I’m really fast and good.” And he said, “Great, report to the shop Monday morning at nine o’clock.” I was a bit trepidatious, to tell you the truth. You know, being unemployed and feeling a little vulnerable. But when I walked into that shop, within four or five steps into that space, I knew that this was a real live workshop. You could smell it. It was, you know, the lacquers and the shellacs and the gesso and all of it. And then later in the day, Bill [Kurelek] walked in. I didn’t know who he was, actually. He walked down and wanted to know if I was Ukrainian. And I said, “Well, as a matter of fact, my dad is Ukrainian.”

AK: Could you explain what a fitter does, in the context of a framing workshop?

BD: The shop had three distinct spaces, and they were called “ends”— because [workshop foreman] Stan Beecham was British, and this is what they call workshop rooms. So, the first thing you’d walk into was the finishing end. Then you’d walk into a larger room, which was the cutting and joining end. And then the fitting end, where you’d assemble the mats, the glass, the frame and fit it all to the artwork, wrap it all up, put paper on the back with eye screws and wire so that it’s ready to go. I arrived at Isaacs in 1970, just at the Christmas into 1971. So, I was there really from, you know, late-1970 to 1976.

AK: Was Kurelek around the workshop over those six years, between 1970 and 1976?

BD: Yes. He continued to have his own space in the finishing end, and his own bench. That bench is where he, you know, assembled his frames for his paintings. Bill made his end in the shop his own. Every now and then, he’d make up a huge batch of gesso and would paint his benches, drawers, and everything in brilliant white, until it got worn down.

AK: In 1970, what was workshop culture like?

BD: The shop was a place of camaraderie, for and with Bill. And it was a place where he could, you know, meet other men, talk, and stuff like that. But he was pretty straight. The fitter prior to me had hung up some nudies in his end, and Bill came down with a black brush and painted them out. Not their faces, but everything else. We were all essentially run by Stan Beecham, who had an amazing ability to make the workshop flow. Bill often worked at night. There was a little bone of contention between him and Stan because Bill would bring in the barnboards he used for his frames, and there’d be the odd nail that would dull the saw blade. So, Bill decided to bring his own saw blades. It was always pretty magical and warming to come, you know, to the shop on winter days, walking in from the Annex, and see the light on and know that Bill was there. And you’d walk into that lovely warm space, smelling of glue and shellac, and all of it. And there would be Bill, working. And it was our little time to talk. When I graduated from fitting to finishing, I was suddenly working in the same space as Bill. And he was a fantastic teacher.

AK: That is my next question. What did Kurelek teach you, especially in the finishing end?

BD: Well, we had already talked about our rather authoritative Ukrainian fathers. The previous finisher had left, and so I just jumped in the deep end and took over. I knew some basics and stuff, but the finisher prior to me gave me the wrong formulas—so that I couldn’t be as good as him, right? That was what it was like in the old times. Anyway, there was a frame I was finishing, and I couldn’t get the gold leaf into a beading line—the place where two shapes join in a frame. I said, “Bill, I don’t know how to do this.” He came over—he was so quiet, so generous—and he showed me how to bring the gold leaf slowly across so you can bury it into that deep line and then draw it away to do the next part of the frame. It’s a technique I’ve used all my framing life. But he was wonderful. He was very sensitive to somebody deriding you because of your ignorance.

AK: What were your impressions of the frames Kurelek made for his own work?

BD: Bill understood classical framing intimately because of his work in London. And he was able to make little innovations on that. I love his barnboard stuff. In the basement of the shop, he had a whole load of barnboard that he had scavenged from God knows where. Kurelek would paint on his gesso, let it dry. He would rub it down with cold wet linen. And that was the only smoothing that took place. He did not use sandpaper to take out the flaws. And so, when he gilded it, it was a much more organic feeling than the very precise French tradition. Bill’s work was very organic, very rounded. The odd flaw in the gold—they call it a “holiday”—was allowed to stay. And it worked because he knew how to blend the whole thing together.

AK: What is it about Brian in the Old Workshop that resonates with you?

BD: Oh, well it is the spirit of that place. I mean, there’s all sorts of detail, and the place was so full of detail, really. There’s a weight in the picture if you notice—like, for lifting. Well, that’s what we used to weigh things down with in the shop. That’s me in the background there, you know, smashing glass. But there’s so many references, like the little Inuit sculpture on Stan’s bench, pointing at us. But also, the machinery. There’s the press, and then you’re looking into the fitting room. I love that “Nevermore” from Poe’s raven—because it was literally the shop’s fitting end. Right? Bill loved puns. We looked onto the alley, just off Yorkville. And, at that time, it was an older Toronto, so the back lane was old swayback fences and hollyhocks growing there, and the sunlight coming in would hit your workspace in a particular way. And it was warm and toasty in there because we were always heating up something. The shop was much more medieval than what a shop would be today, with nail guns and mat cutters. We were doing everything by hand. It was all by hand. And so, it was a completely different framing world than what you would see if you walked into a shop today.

We extend our thanks to Andrew Kear, Canadian art historian and Head of Collections, Exhibitions and Programs at Museum London for contributing the preceding essay. Andrew is the past Chief Curator and Curator of Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a Curator of the 2011/2012 national travelling exhibition “William Kurelek: The Messenger” and author of the Art Canada’s Institute’s “William Kurelek: Life & Work”, available at

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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 (