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Artist in Focus IV - William Kurelek

William Kurelek was born on 3 March 1927 at his father’s farm at Whitford in Alberta, Canada. His upbringing was strongly influenced by the Ukrainian immigrant community into which he was born (the Kurelek children did not speak English until they went to school). According to his autobiography, Someone with Me, Kurelek grew up in terror of his father, who appeared to despise him and treated him with harshness and contempt. Throughout his youth he suffered increasing psychological problems which he later attributed to this relationship.

Kurelek had shown a talent for drawing and painting from his early school days. He took a degree at the University of Manitoba, trying to satisfy his parents by training to be a teacher, while hoping eventually to become an artist. He briefly attended the Ontario College of Art at Toronto, but left to hitchhike to Mexico to spend five months at an art school in San Miguel Allende. He then decided to come to Europe, principally to seek the psychiatric treatment which he now felt that he needed. He worked as a lumberjack to earn the fare.

Kurelek reached London in 1952 and wandered into the Maudsley Hospital, which he had seen mentioned in a book in the Montreal library, to ask for admission. While receiving treatment as an out-patient he worked at a labouring job for London Transport, taking up the old tram rails. The painting which he made of the scene became his first sale - to London Transport. Eventually he was admitted to the Maudsley as an in-patient, where he painted many pictures including The Maze, but was later transferred to Netherne Hospital. After his discharge he made a living for a time selling trompe l’oeil paintings, and spent two years apprenticed to a picture frame maker, hoping to be able to set up his own business in Canada. In 1957 he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. He attributed his ultimate full recovery to this, rather than to the psychiatric treatment which he received.

He returned to Toronto in 1959, where he married and lived for the rest of his life. He had his first one man exhibition there at the Isaacs Gallery in 1960. From this time on his reputation gradually increased, and by the late sixties he was established as one of Canada’s leading artists. His paintings were particularly valued for their record of prairie farming and other aspects of Canadian life in the 1930s, forties and fifties. He also wrote and illustrated many books on similar themes. His work is now to be found in many public and private collections in Canada. William Kurelek died of cancer in Toronto on 3 November 1977.