Artwork by William Kurelek,  A Bolt Like That

William Kurelek
A Bolt Like That

mixed media on masonite
signed with monogram and dated 1965 lower right; titled on a gallery label on the reverse
24 x 47.5 ins ( 61 x 120.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $200,000.00$150,000.00 - $200,000.00

Price Realized $264,000.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

The Isaacs Gallery, Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto
William Kurelek, “Someone With Me”, Toronto, 1980, page 73
In his 1964 exhibition “An Immigrant Farms in Canada”, William Kurelek foregrounded the activities, events, and seasonal pursuits he recalled, growing up in an agrarian community north of Winnipeg in the 1930s. “A Bolt Like That”, painted a year later, resonates strongly with the artist’s work in the mid-1960s and early 1970s. “An Immigrant Farms in Canada” at Toronto’s Isaacs Gallery was the first in a series he would mount exploring the latter half of the 1960s that analyze both the tender and the gruelling aspects of daily life on the Prairies, including “The Ukrainian Pioneer Woman in Canada” (1967), “Prairie Farm Work” (1969), “Farm Humour” (1971), and “My Brother John” (1973). Although this painting was not featured in any of these exhibitions, it made an appearance in the 1967 National Film Board documentary Kurelek by William Pettigrew.

This documentary and the early chapters of Kurelek’s later autobiography, “Someone With Me”, brims with the artist’s recollected stories of his childhood in rural Alberta and Manitoba. He later envisioned some of these narratives as paintings. In other instances, as is the case with “A Bolt Like That”, the paintings speak for themselves. This work depicts two family members, Kurelek and his father perhaps,
huddled on a frozen Prairie field in the middle of winter. The child’s lantern throws a rare warmth echoed only by the sun reflecting off the distant moon. A second figure, crouching, reaches into the cavity of a hulking piece of farming equipment, obscured by the tightly packed, encasing snow. The denuded patch of trees in the middle ground, the oceanic expanse of the field, the black sky pricked by starlight, and the straight, uncompromising horizon set a scene of cold desolation.

The painting is, on the one hand, about the gruelingly mundane. Kurelek admits that, as a youth, he was clumsy, absent-minded, and completely inept at solving practical, mechanical problems. “At times,” he writes in his autobiography, “I had the uncanny feeling that I was actually sabotaging farm operations.” We can feel the painting’s cloying, bitter cold, but we also sense the matter-of-course banality of retrieving (or replacing) some sprocket, nut, or bolt with frigid fingers in the middle of the night. And yet, the picture is not without mystery. Kurelek, a devote Roman Catholic, made a point of infusing otherwise humdrum, lonely, terrestrial scenes with an abiding sense of divine presence. While he was always quick to insist that the natural world was, in itself, fundamentally ambivalent toward the affairs and values of human beings, paintings like this seem pregnant with deep, inchoate, perhaps inarticulable meaning.

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 (