Artwork by William Kurelek,  Prairie Call to Cold Company (Nativity Series)

William Kurelek
Prairie Call to Cold Company (Nativity Series)

mixed media on board
signed with monogram and dated 1975 lower right; titled and inscribed “14” on the reverse
24 x 23.75 ins ( 61 x 60.3 cms )

Auction Estimate: $80,000.00$60,000.00 - $80,000.00

Price Realized $60,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Isaacs Gallery, Toronto
Equinox Gallery, Vancouver
Joyner Waddington’s, auction, Toronto, 27 May 2008, lot 17
Private Collection, Calgary
William Kurelek, “A Northern Nativity”, Toronto, 1976, no. 13, unpaginated, reproduced as “Grain Elevator’s Blind Corner”
In 1976 William Kurelek created a series of twenty paintings depicting the story of the nativity, the basis for the Christian holiday of Christmas. These images were imagined as if Jesus Christ had been born in a Canadian setting, such as an igloo, a fishing hut, at Niagara Falls or in a lumber camp.

At the age of twelve, while growing up in the prairies in the 1930s during the depression, Kurelek experienced a sequence of dreams about the nativity. As the artist reflected, “The Nativity story got mixed up with history and geography lessons... A few were long; others were more like pictures that flashed on very briefly. But they all started and ended with the questions: If it happened there, why not here? If it happened then, why not now?”

All taking place in Kurelek’s mind as he lay in the cold upstairs room of the farmhouse, these dreams were a combination of his childhood experiences working and living on the family farm, his knowledge of the prairies and the various places he visited while dreaming at night. The grain elevator depicted in this scene is like the one Kurelek had hauled grain to with his father. The nearby wagon stands as if just emptied of grain. Mary and the baby Jesus are huddled in an alcove of the building in the foreground, while the children outside seem to be beckoning to the child to join in their game, or to perhaps go sledding. As Kurelek recalls, he thought about this dream later, and wondered
if it was all a tease, saying, “Then slowly its meaning came through... wasn’t it similar to another question often asked: ‘Why can’t the sick in mind pull themselves together?’”

The story of the nativity is reflected in many works by Kurelek,na central theme that the artist harkened back to in his oeuvre. This collection of paintings was fondly referred to by the artist as, ‘Christmas dreams of a prairie boy’ in the book, “A Northern Nativity”, highlighting all twenty paintings in the series. The nativity story and the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ is imagined within the multicultural tapestry of Canada, the adopted home of his Ukrainian family, expanding upon Kurelek’s belief “in the universality of the Christmas message.”

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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 (