William Kurelek: the man, the messenger, the maze

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It was a sunny day in late July, I was wandering up Moss street, enjoying Victoria’s annual “Paint-In”, when I met William Kurelek. The sky was a prairie blue and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria was admittance by donation – the day was only getting better. Kurelek’s work drew me in right away. At first I was tickled by his illustrative style (reminding me of the linework of Eric Chase Anderson, Norman Rockwell and the colour schemes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder), from there I was drawn in to the details. Most of the paintings shown in this exhibition are done with oil paint, ink, and gouache, even scratching, on masonite boards. The subject matter ranges from childhood reflections to religious allegory, often set on the scenes of the Canadian prairies. The detail that ties his work together so tightly and uniquely is found in the framing. Some of the frames are trimmed with Ukrainian textile ribbons, others have carved patterns, highly detailed, and are painted to complimentary echo the colours that are used within the painting.

Kurelek received training as an apprentice to a fine-art framer in 1957 while institutionalized in England (he was recovering from a deep depression and being treated for schizophrenia). During his treatments he painted a work entitled “The Maze” (you may recognize a portion of it from Van Halen’s “Fair Warning” album cover?). In this painting he reveals the inside of his skull, showing interior vignettes depicting pressures and painful experiences he had as a boy, youth, and adult. In 1969 Kurelek spoke about this painting: “The Maze is a painting of the inside of my skull which I painted while I was in England as a patient in Maudsley and Netherne psychiatric hospitals. It is a story of my life… well in the sense that people tell stories by the fireplace to entertain their guests, trying to make them accept you. In this case, I wanted to be accepted as an interesting specimen.”

There has been a movie made about this painting. First began in 1969 by Robert M. Young and David Grubin, in an attempt to make a documentary about psychotic art. The final, full version was never completed, until recently when Robert’ sons, Nick and Zack Young, recovered the film and expanded it with an original soundtrack and modern digital animation. Nick speaks about the film: “We feel that the longer version of the film that the public has yet to see gives a much deeper insight into Kurelek’s story. We’ve been able to track down just about all of the paintings in the original film as well as others and have rephotographed them with equipment that was not available to our father when he made the original film. There is so much detail and hidden meaning in these paintings and William Kurelek’s story becomes all the more compelling when one experiences in High Definition what a masterful artist he was.” When making the soundtrack they researched what music Kurelek had listened to while painting and explored traditional Ukrainian folk music and Ukrainian instruments.

The film will be playing this week in Victoria. The screening will be followed by discussion with Stephen Kurelek, the artist’s son, who will respond to the film drawing on personal accounts and experiences.

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