William Kurelek

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William Kurelek
William Kurelek B&W 10-18-73.jpg
Born (1927-03-03)March 3, 1927
near Whitford, Alberta in Canada
Died November 3, 1977(1977-11-03) (aged 50)
Toronto, Canada
Nationality Canada
Ethnicity Ukrainian [1]
Alma mater University of Manitoba
Occupation Artist
Years active 1950s-1977
Notable work The Maze, Passion of Christ series
Religion Roman Catholic [1]

William Kurelek, CM (March 3, 1927 — November 3, 1977) was a Canadian artist and writer. His work was influenced by his childhood on the prairies, his Ukrainian-Canadian roots, his struggles with mental illness, and his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

His father, Dymtro Kurelek, was born in Boriwtsi, Bukovina. Mary Huculak, his mother, was born in Canada, and received her elementary education in a local rural school. Her family had come with the first wave of Ukrainian immigration to Canada and was also from Boriwtsi. Dymtro and Mary were cousins. Dmytro arrived to work on the Huculak farm early in 1923. The couple was married in the summer of 1925, his mother not quite nineteen at the time. [2]


William Kurelek was born near Whitford, Alberta in 1927, the oldest of seven children in a Ukrainian immigrant family: Bill, John, Winn, Nancy, Sandy, Paul, Iris. His family lost their grain farm during the Great Depression and moved to a six hundred acre former dairy farm near Stonewall, Manitoba, around 1933.[3] A cousin let the family off from his wagon at the gate of their new farm in pitch darkness. [4] [5] The back of their farm bordered on the bog, today Oak Hammock Marsh. Some of his paintings in the books A prairie boy's summer, and A prairie boy's winter, depict Kurelek and other children in the setting of the bog. Treelines along the horizon recorded by him in these paintings are still recognizable in the area.

He developed an early interest in art, which was not encouraged by his hard-working parents. He studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and at the Instituto Allende in Mexico, but was primarily self-taught from books.

By his mid-twenties he had moved to England. In 1952, suffering from clinical depression and emotional problems, he admitted himself into the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in London. There he was treated for schizophrenia.[6] In hospital he painted, producing The Maze, a dark depiction of his tortured youth.[7] His experience in the hospital was documented in the LIFE Science Library book The Mind, published in 1965.

He was transferred from the Maudsley Hospital to the Netherne Hospital, where he stayed from November 1953 to January 1955, to work with Edward Adamson (1911–1996), a pioneer of art therapy. At Netherne he produced three masterpieces - Where Am I? Who Am I? Why Am I? (donated to the American Visionary Arts Museum by Adamson at its inauguration in 1995), I Spit On Life, and A Ball of Twine and Other Nonsense. In 1984, when the Adamson Collection was exhibited as Selections from the Edward Adamson Collection, at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Adamson donated to the Ontario Psychiatric Association a large pencil drawing by Kurelek of one of the interiors of Netherne Hospital, showing a group of patients at leisure.

Originally Ukrainian Orthodox, and briefly a professed atheist, Kurelek converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1957. He painted a series of 160 works on the Passion of Christ, and a series of 20 depicting the Nativity as if Christ had been born in various Canadian settings: an igloo, a trapper's cabin, a boxcar, a motel. He maintained a cottage near Combermere, Ontario, where he got his inspiration for a book of paintings entitled The Polish Canadians, and was a friend of the nearby Madonna House Apostolate.

In 1959 he moved to Toronto, where he wrote and illustrated a series of children's books, several of which have become modern classics.[8] In 1974 he illustrated a new edition of W. O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind.[9] He won the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award for A Prairie Boy's Winter in 1974 and A Prairie Boy's Summer in 1976. He was made a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.[10] In 1976, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. He visited Ukraine in 1970 and again in 1977, posthumously publishing To My Father's Village. He died of cancer in Toronto in 1977. His archives, and a substantial body of his work, including the Passion series mentioned above, are held at Niagara Falls Art Gallery and Archives Canada.


Solo works[edit]

  • O Toronto (1973) Toronto : New Press.
  • Someone With Me: An Autobiography (1973) Ithaca, New York: Centre for Improvement of Undergraduate Education, Cornell University.
  • A Prairie Boy's Winter (1973) ISBN 0-88776-102-X
  • Lumberjack (1974) ISBN 0-88776-378-2
  • A Prairie Boy's Summer (1975) ISBN 0-88776-116-X
  • The Passion of Christ (1975) Niagara Falls: Niagara Falls Art Gallery & Museum.
  • Kurelek's Canada (1975) Toronto: Pagurian Press Limited.
  • The Last of the Arctic (1976) Toronto: Pagurian Press Limited.
  • A Northern Nativity (1976) ISBN 978-0-88776-099-0
  • Fields (1976) Montreal: Tundra Books.
  • Someone With Me: An Autobiography (1980) (revised condensed reprint) Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
  • The Ukrainian Pioneer (1980) Niagara Falls: Niagara Falls Art Gallery. Based on the 1971 mural of the same title.
  • The Polish Canadians (1981) Montreal: Tundra Books.
  • Someone With Me (reprint) (1988) Niagara Falls: Niagara Falls Art Gallery.
  • To My Father's Village (1988) Montreal: Tundra Books. ISBN 978-0-88776-220-8

In collaboration[edit]

  • They Sought A New World (1985) Montreal: Tundra Books. Text by Margaret Engelhart, with snippets of the artist's commentary and paintings illustrating Engelhart's text.
  • With historian Abraham Arnold. Jewish Life In Canada (1976). Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers.
  • Kurelek Country (1999) Toronto: Key Porter Books. Preface by his dealer, Av Isaacs; biographical essay by historian Ramsay Cook.
  • With Joan Murray (1983). Kurelek's Vision of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers. Exhibition catalogue.

Works illustrated by him[edit]

  • Kupchenko-Frolick, G. (1989). The Chicken Man. Stratford, Ontario: Williams-Wallace Publishers.
  • Ivan Franko. (1978). Fox Mykyta. Montreal: Tundra Books. (72 illustrations.)
  • Mitchell, W.O. (1976). Who Has Seen The Wind. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.
  • De Marco, D. (1974). Abortion In Perspective. Cincinnati: Hiltz & Hayes Publishing. (Section head illustrations.)

Film and video[edit]



  1. ^ a b "William Kurelek Biography". William Kurelek: The Messenger. Retrieved 18 August 2013. 
  2. ^ Morley, Patricia. Kurelek, A Biography, Macmillan of Canada, 1986, page 13.
  3. ^ Ewanchuk, Michel. William Kurelek: The Suffering Genius, Michael Ewanchuk Publishing , 1996, page 9.
  4. ^ "Arriving on the Manitoba Farm, 1963". 
  5. ^ Kurelek, William. Someone With Me, An Autobiography, McClelland and Stewart, 1980, page 45.
  6. ^ "Schizophrenia, Aging and Art". Courses.cit.cornell.edu. Retrieved 2015-07-28. 
  7. ^ [1] Archived September 27, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  8. ^ "The Canadian Encyclopedia". Canadianencyclopedia.ca. Retrieved 2015-07-28. 
  9. ^ [2] Archived February 2, 2009, at the Wayback Machine.
  10. ^ "Members since 1880". Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. Retrieved 11 September 2013. 
  11. ^ "William Kurelek | Art Gallery of Greater Victoria". Aggv.ca. Retrieved 2015-07-28. 
  12. ^ "Art of William Kurelek and dance extravaganza kick off season at Ukrainian Village". Alberta.ca. 2012-05-11. Retrieved 2015-07-28. 
  13. ^ "Spend an afternoon exploring local history and art". Canada.com. 2010-08-20. Retrieved 2015-07-28. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Ewanchuk, Michael. William Kurelek: The Suffering Genius. Steinbach, Manitoba: Perksen Printers and Michael Ewanchuk Publishing, 1996.
  • P. Morley. Kurelek. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1986.
  • Friesen, I. Earth Hell & Heaven In the Art of William Kurelek. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1997.
  • Orford, Emily-Jane Hills. "The Creative Spirit: Stories of 20th Century Artists". Ottawa: Baico Publishing, 2008. ISBN 978-1-897449-18-9.
  • Pomedli, M. William Kurelek's Huronia Mission Paintings. Lampeter, Dyfed, Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.
  • Cutler, May. Breaking Free: The Story of William Kurelek. Tundra Books, 2002.
  • Dedora, Brian. With WK in the Workshop: A Memoir of William Kurelek. Aya Press / The Mercury Press, 1989.

External links[edit]