Tuesday 27th June 2017

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William Kurelek… Painting For Life

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By DONALD DeMARCO

I was about to take my aesthetics students to the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo when a friend suggested that on my way there, I stop at the Niagara Falls Art Gallery and view the artistry of William Kurelek. And so I did, but what we found there was an unexpected treasure. We never did get to Buffalo.
The museum’s centerpiece is 160 paintings illustrating as many verses from the Passion of Christ according to St. Matthew. This ambitious project required six years of planning and execution, including a three-week sojourn in the Holy Land where Kurelek retraced the footsteps of Christ and three years in studying the Gospel.
He commenced his work on New Year’s Day 1960 and produced one painting per week until the series was completed. Slides were made from the paintings and shown by missionaries in various parts of the world.
The museum curators, Mykola and Olha Kolankiwsky, were more than gracious to us. A trilingual coffee-table edition of the Passion series was in the works and Mykola invited me to write an article for it.
They were eager to introduce me to Kurelek who was equally gracious, providing seven illustrations for one book of mine and a cover for another. We met on several occasions and exchanged letters. He would refer to me as “The Professor,” an accolade I felt was unwarranted, given his extraordinary stature as an Artist.
I found him to be attentive, humble, and the possessor of a sly sense of humor.
Patricia Morley begins her biography of Kurelek by stating that his life is “one of the strangest stories ever told.” At the same time, she acknowledges that “Kurelek is one of the great painters which this country [Canada] has nurtured.”
It is an odyssey that moves from self-doubt to despair, and then from recovery to gratitude. It has strong affinities with Francis Thompson’s celebrated poem The Hound of Heaven, one that had been a personal favorite with Kurelek. For him, no other poem expressed so completely his “personal life lesson.” He attached particular significance to the line, “Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth.”
As with Thompson, Kurelek’s story is one of fear and flight, grace and redemption.
William Kurelek was born on a farm in 1927 to Ukrainian-Canadian pioneers, near Whitford, Alberta. He was the oldest of seven children. The first seven years if his childhood were spent there, the next dozen in Stonewall, Manitoba, just north of Winnipeg.
Because of his hypersensitive nature and his lack of athletic and mechanical abilities, he was a persistent target of abuse from both his father as well as his peers. In 1950, he decided to hitchhike to Mexico to find a master painter.
Caught in the cold night air of the Arizona desert, he took refuge under a road bridge and went to sleep. In his autobiography he records that the next thing he realized was that someone was with him. A man in a long white robe appeared, urging him to rise: “Get up, we must look after the sheep, or you will freeze to death.”
Kurelek interpreted this vision as an indication that he was not alone, that Someone was with him, and would remain with him throughout “the rest of my journey through this tragic, puzzling, yet wonderful world. There is Someone with me. And He has asked me to get up because there is work to be done.”
His experience in the Arizona desert notwithstanding, Kurelek’s fortunes turned from bad to worse. He went to England and checked into a psychiatric hospital where he received a series of excruciating electric convulsion treatments for chronic depression and acute eye pains.
His condition, however, deteriorated. At his wit’s end, he slashed himself and crawled under his bed, hoping to bleed to death. A hospital nurse entered his room at a propitious moment and saved his life.
A sympathetic occupational nurse by the name of Margaret Smith befriended him and introduced him to the Catholic faith. In February 1977, and after extensive preparation, the once staunch atheist entered the Catholic Church. Nurse Smith served as his godmother.
At last he had a home that would not abandon him nor would he ever abandon. He produced his Passion series out of gratitude to God for his healing. He attended Mass daily and became committed to two pressing issues: social justice and justice for the unborn child.
In his painting, It’s Hard for Us to Realize, he juxtaposes the manicured plushness of the Rosedale Country Club with the poverty of India. He portrays overweight picnickers who are stuffing themselves with food while remaining oblivious to emaciated supplicant coolies.
His film, Pacem in Terris, inspired by Pope St. John XXIII’s encyclical, is specifically directed to the critical need for social justice and the cooperation of nations in the world.
Concerning his most graphic anti-abortion work, Our My Lai, the Massacre of Highland Creek, he compares aborted babies with the slaughter of innocent and helpless citizens in Vietnam. He depicts buckets filled with the aborted unborn and their blood flowing across a snowy landscape and over the painting’s frame.
On the positive side of things, he donated money he earned from his paintings to pro-life organizations such as Birthright and Right to Life. A Mississauga couple paid $5,000 for one of his works which went directly to Toronto Right to Life.
He and his wife had four children, two of whom were adopted. They also had foster children in different parts of the globe.
The money he earned for each “cow” he painted paid for an actual cow for the poor in Brazil. At first he kept track of how many cows he provided by naming them after family members. But he soon ran out of names.
Kurelek produced 16 books illustrating his paintings from O Toronto to Prairie Boy’s Summer. For his various achievements he was made a member of the Order of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. He was honored by a number of national and international awards.
He painted for life and perhaps exhausted himself in the process. Sadly, he died of cancer in 1977 at 50 years of age.

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