Tag Archives: William Kurelek

Cossack Connection

William Kurelek’s painting Zaporozhian Cossacks has been added to one of the collections on display at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. The title Zaporozhian Cossacks immediately connected with me personally. We stayed in the city of Zaporozhia in Ukraine during the week we were exploring the places where our grandparents had lived before coming to Canada as refugees.

Posing on a cossack horse in front of the historic oak tree near Zaporizhia Ukraine.

We also took photos at a giant oak tree that was a gathering place for cossacks in the Zaporozhia area hundreds of years ago. 

In his painting William Kurelek tells the story of a Zaporozhian cossack named Taras Bulba.   While a student in Kiev Taras’s son Andriy falls in love with the daughter of a Polish noble.  Andriy returns home and his father orders him to take part in a military campaign against the Poles.  During the battle Andriy discovers the girl he loves is among the Poles starving to death inside a city the cossacks have surrounded. Andriy smuggles food in to her.  His father kills him for his treasonous act. 

I think the man in the colorful clothes at the centre of the painting is Taras.  I am speculating Tarus is talking to a man named Yankel who was the informer that told Taras of his son’s betrayal. But he could also be talking to his own son Andriy who is begging for mercy. I think these are the cossacks dancing and singing on one side of the paintingwhile on the other side in the background we see the starving Poles inside the besieged city.  Could that be Andriy’s executioner in the left foreground wielding a sword?  I was particularly drawn to the group of men to the right of the executioner. They seem unperturbed by the chaos around them as they play music and pet a dog. I wish I could talk to William Kurelek about the painting and ask him what he has depicted in its various sections.  But as I always tell the children I guide at the gallery each viewer finds their own story in a piece of art. That’s what makes visiting an art gallery so interesting. 

Like me artist William Kurelek was from a Canadian Ukrainian immigrant family. Kurelek lived on a farm near Stonewall Manitoba as a child and when he was a teenager his family moved to Winnipeg where William studied art at the University of Manitoba. Later he took classes at a fine arts school in Mexico where he was influenced by muralists like Diego Rivera. He painted  Zaporzhian Cossacks as a tribute to his father in 1952 just before William moved to England.  William is probably best known to Canadians for his illustrations of the books A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer. 

Other posts…….

Another Chortitza Oak

The Dark Side of William Kurelek

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Filed under Art, winnipeg art gallery

The Eaton’s Catalogue- Toilet Paper and Shin Pads

On a recent tour of Toronto the guide took us the Eaton Center and told us how founder Timothy Eaton had made a fortune by pioneering the idea of selling things through a catalogue in Canada. That way even people who couldn’t come to his stores in person could still shop and spend their money on his goods.

My husband Dave told the other Toronto visitors in our tour group who were from India, Finland and Austria that here in Canada the Eatons catalogue had three important uses in the past besides being a shopping resource. 

They served as hockey shin pads for young players who couldn’t afford to buy expensive equipment. In a 1963 article in the Montreal Gazette famed NHL player Gordie Howe talks about using catalogues for shin pads when he was a kid. 

The catalogues were also used as toilet paper in outhouses, since many rural homes  did not have indoor plumbing and toilet paper was expensive and not readily available for sale everywhere. At the Art Gallery of Ontario you can see a painting by prairie artist William Kurelek in which has depicted a person in the outhouse on a winter day. Hanging on the wall is the Eatons catalogue they are using for toilet paper. 

 And before the advent of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition or Playboy magazine the swim suit and lingerie section of the Eatons catalogue was a popular alternative for teenage Canadian boys. 

Our guide was impressed with Dave’s humorous addition to the tour narrative. He asked permission to use Dave’s story with future groups. 

Other posts with connections to this one………

Mr. Eaton

The Dark Side of William Kurelek

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Filed under Culture, History, Toronto

The Dark Side of William Kurelek

This week my friend Esther and I went to see the William Kurelek exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. I knew William’s work from his delightful books that catalogue life on the prairies in the mid 1900’s.  This summer I had seen a Kurelek series at the Ukrainian Museum in Saskatoon that depicted what life was like on the prairies for pioneer women. I was also familiar with Kurelek’s Northern Nativity in which he imagines the Christ Child coming in the present day to the north.

My favorite Kurelek paintings were a series I saw at an art gallery in Ottawa that showed the experience of immigrants from the Ukraine traveling to Canada, building communities on the prairie,and becoming successful farmers. I think I liked this Kurelek series so much, because my grandparents were immigrants from the Ukraine who helped to build communities and establish farms on the Canadian prairies. 

In all the work of Kurelek I’d seen, he’d painted an almost idyllic picture of life on the prairie. From what I knew of Kurelek he affirmed life, faith, community and family. I hadn’t seen Kurelek’s dark side till I visited the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s exhibit about his life’s work. 

In his painting The Maze –which shows Kurelek’s open decapitated skull– Kurelek depicts his childhood as anything but happy. One scene from The Maze,  shows Kurelek’s father violently kicking him out the door into the cold and snow.

A haunting painting of a blind man Lord That I May See  was easier to understand when I read in the Kurelek biography that William was in a psychiatric hospital  for four years  and tried to commit suicide twice. 

Kurelek credits his  conversion to Roman Catholicism with helping him deal with his mental problems. His new spiritual devotion led him to create many apocalyptic paintings warning about the end of the world. Kurelek truly believed the end of the world was imminent and built a nuclear blast shelter in his basement during the Cuban Missile Crisis. 

Kurelek’s fervent faith led him to create 160 images showing the Passion of Christ as it is recorded in Matthew. Kurelek did not hesitate to show the gory reality of Christ’s torture and crucifixion. 

My visit to the William Kurelek exhibit at the Winnipeg Art Gallery helped me learn so much more about William Kurelek, including the fact that he had a very dark side, and some troubling visions of life and the future of the world. If anything this makes me appreciate his happy, almost poetic paintings of the prairie even more. 

Check out these posts about Canadian artists……

Landscapes For the End of Time

The Wave- Art in the Interlake


Filed under Art, Canada, Culture, Winnipeg

What Next in Saskatoon

On one of my walks in Saskatoon I came upon a flock of Canada Geese beside the river. Having lived in Hong Kong for many years, where obviously there are no Canada geese, it was nice to see this native Canadian bird again. I have written about Canada Geese before, but this time I thought about how Canada Geese seldom have to worry about what’s next.  They follow the exact same migration routes year after year.  On their annual journeys they always stop to rest in exactly the same locations, both on their flights north in spring and south in fall. They make their nests in exactly the same places each year, sometimes even using the previous summer’s nest. Usually their nests are very near to where their parents built nests. Sometimes it’s comforting to have everything you need to do already established for you, so you don’t need to worry about what’s next.  I visited the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon and one of the exhibits told the story of the Mendel family. In the 1940’s Fred Mendel owned a large international meat-packing company. He maintained homes in several European cities. but he was forced to flee , leaving his business headquarters and personal wealth behind when the Nazis took control. What next? He came to Canada and started over, building up another very successful business and amassing a large and impressive art collection. In the 1960’s he donated funds to the city of Saskatoon for the building of the Mendel Art Gallery and gifted the gallery with many of the pieces of art from his collection. There are times in life when all of us are forced to begin again- when we don’t have any idea what’s next but we have to leave old things behind and start over.

At the Ukrainian Museum in Saskatoon I spent a long time looking at a series of paintings by William Kurelek showing the life of pioneer women in Canada. They moved from one task to another, gardening, child care, home improvements, housework, cooking, cleaning, laundry. Did they ever have to ask “what next?” when another task always lay before them.  Life was just one long, never-ending arc of work. In my teaching career I have often felt that way too- in September when school opened I stepped onto this long moving walkway of endless grading, lesson planning, meetings, crisis, problem solving, classroom organizing and a million other things. That walkway just kept moving and as fast as I walked I never reached the end. My old school in Hong Kong has already opened for the year and as I see e-mails and Facebook postings from my teaching friends there, I am not sure yet if I am completely happy or just a little bit sad that I won’t be stepping onto that teaching walkway of work this year.

Our son and his wife bought a home in Saskatoon a year ago, which we saw for the first time on our recent visit. Although their home is new and they are the first people to live in it, they are already asking “what next?” when it comes to things they want to do in their house and on their yard.  They were busy landscaping while we were there.  They have plans to finish the basement and build a deck and cover a walkway in their backyard with a roof. When you are a home owner you seem to constantly be thinking about what’s next when it comes to maintaining your home. It was kind of nice in Hong Kong where we rented a serviced apartment not to have to worry about any of those things. If something needed to  be done in our suite we just called the front desk and they sent people up to take care of it.  Already since moving back to Winnipeg we’ve made long lists of things we need to do in our condo here- replace a cracked window pane, buy a new washer and dryer, paint the walls, fix the mailbox lock, clean the ceramic sink, reinstall the broken towel bars, caulk the bathtubs, put up picture hangers……… I’m not sure I like being so responsible and having to constantly think about what’s next when it comes to home maintenance.

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Filed under Canada, Family, Retirement