William Kurelek was born in Alberta Canada to Ukrainian parents and his grandparents came to Edmonton in 1924 in the second wave of Ukrainian immigration. Kurelek was a prolific painter in spite of his short life. He was renowned for depicting the life of early settlers, particularly Ukrainian pioneers in his paintings. Several members of the board of directors of the Ukrainian Museum in Saskatoon met Kurelek to commission him to paint a collection to celebrate Canada’s Centennial. Kurelek spent about three years between 1964 and 1967 and produced 20 paintings focussing on the life of the pioneer Ukrainian women. He was working in his studio in Toronto at that time. Unfortunately, the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada did not have enough funds for all the paintings, and only paid Kurelek for twelve of them, now on display in the Special Collection Gallery behind the brass door, which were the original front doors of the museum in the Ukrainian Museum in Saskatoon.
This is undoubtedly a precious collection that I have not come across before in publications on Kurelek’s art. Six smaller paintings in glass frames recorded the daily chores of the pioneer women–serving a meal, painting pysanka (Easter egg), engaging laundry, daily prayer, embroidery, and helping a child to read. Each painting tells a story and one is naturally drawn towards the facial expressions of the figures in an attempt to guess what is on their mind or what they are saying.
Six larger paintings are about community life, such going to church, farming, an outdoor picnic and dance. This painting is unique in that it shows a meeting of the Association of Ukrainian Women in session.
I like this one with aurelius borealis in the night sky with mother and daughter returning with their supplies.
The community party with exudes gaiety and festivities is more well-known and a little boy, likely Kurelek himself, has climbed up the tree to watch the activities and scenes like this are based on the painter’s recollection of his childhood in the prairies.
This collection is painted in oil on panel. The details and the fineness of the stroke are the work of a great master. One has to be face to face with the painting to appreciate the talent of Kurelek.
The Gallery also presents a documentary made in 1983 on Kurelek. There is sub-titles if you do not know Ukrainian.
Ukrainian Museum of Canada, 910 Spadina Crescent East, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.