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William Kurelek's autobiographical Reminiscences of Youth (1968). Courtesy of William Kurelek/The Thomson Collection, Art Gallery of Ontario

Prophet with a paintbrush

Once dismissed as the fantasy of a religious oddball, William Kurelek’s expansive vision is back and attracting new converts

By John McTavish

I first met William Kurelek in the spring of 1975. The Canadian artist, then in the prime of his career, was displaying his paintings in the back room of a church hosting a regional United Church meeting. I skipped the afternoon sessions and instead got to know this friendly, down-to-earth man and his work.

That fall, St. Matthew’s United Church in Richmond Hill, Ont., gave me a parting gift of money in appreciation for my years of ministry there. By then my wife and I had fallen in love with Kurelek’s warm, bold colours and unapologetic Christian messages. We used the gift to purchase one of his paintings.

This involved visiting the Kureleks in their modest home in east-end Toronto. William had just returned from Winnipeg, where he had painted 24 nativity scenes with distinctly Canadian settings. The collection was published the following year in one of his most popular books, A Northern Nativity.

I especially liked one picture showing a dark-skinned Jesus sitting on his mother’s lap and digging into a Christmas dinner with a bunch of rugged lumberjacks. My wife favoured another depicting Mary and the holy child sitting in front of a Christmas tree in a Quebec farmhouse. Mom and dad and their six kids are kneeling in front of Jesus, who is pointing to places of need on a little globe resting in his tiny hands.

We compromised by commissioning a painting that shows Jesus and his mother in Kurelek’s father’s barn. We see the rear end of two cows and a couple of cats, the white one looking at Jesus and the black one staring at cow dung.

Kurelek eventually included our three kids in the painting — two of them peering around a barn door, the other gazing at Jesus through the window. The painting hangs in our dining room and continues to give us comfort and delight.

Evidently his work has the same effect on others today. A new Kurelek retrospective, The Messenger, is drawing big crowds on its cross-country tour. Opening in Winnipeg last September, the exhibition of over 80 paintings is showing at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until the end of this month before moving on to Victoria for the rest of the summer. The popularity of the retrospective is significant. Throughout his career, Kurelek was dismissed by some in the mainstream art establishment as an overly Catholicized oddball. Today, however, 30 years after the last major Kurelek exhibition, a new generation of art lovers seems less anxious about the overtly religious themes in his paintings and more enchanted by the colours, form and abundant life in the canvases of this Canadian Brueghel.

There’s no question that Kurelek was at times a troubled man whose inner struggles found expression in his paintings. The eldest child of Ukrainian immigrant parents, he grew up on a farm in rural Manitoba, where his tender, artistic spirit was crushed by an overbearing father who despised art. In his mid-20s, Kurelek fled to England. But there was no escape from his mental anguish. He ended up in a psychiatric hospital where a Catholic nurse introduced him to a heavenly Father who doesn’t scold and disparage but loves.

Kurelek returned to Canada in 1959 a devout Catholic and remained so until 1977, when he died of cancer at age 50. “I don’t consider Canadian citizenship nearly as important as citizenship in the kingdom of heaven,” he wrote in 1975. “After all, each Canadian citizen is that for only a brief span of 70 years, but a citizen of the next world forever. At the same time, however, I am proud of being a Canadian, just as I am of my Ukrainian ancestry. And I truly love this country.”

In the current exhibition, you can see that love flooding his canvases. Kurelek’s Canada was a country of jovial lumberjacks eating breakfast, of big-city snowstorms and vast prairie landscapes teeming with lovingly rendered detail. And those colours! How did he get such rich greens and yellows and blues?

The knock on Kurelek has long been that he was too religious for the good of his craft. If the yardstick for Canadian art is the idealized, unpopulated Group of Seven landscape, well, maybe he was. But genius has a way of revealing itself on its own terms. This exhibition shows Kurelek rejoicing in the glories of God’s world because he has no other choice. He has been called.

The exhibition also reveals his dark side. Kurelek refuses to shut out the looming holocausts at the outer rim of possibility. The Autumn of Life, for example, shows the Kurelek clan posing for a family photo in front of his parents’ farmhouse. The scene is mellow and heart-tugging — until you notice the ominous mushroom cloud exploding on the far horizon. Were Kurelek still alive today, you can bet that his art would be screaming about the coming storms of climate change.

In 1975, after Kurelek had finished the nativity painting we had commissioned, we invited him and his family to stay with us for the weekend in our new home in Bracebridge, Ont. He brought our painting, along with a dozen or so from the Northern Nativity series, strapping them onto the roof of his battered station wagon.

It was a fun weekend. But it transpired that Kurelek didn’t want to display his works during worship on Sunday. He preferred, he said, simply to preach. We finally reached a compromise. I held up the paintings and he talked about their religious meaning. It was one of the best sermons I never gave.

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