During the Cold War, William Kurelek used a bomb shelter for a studio.
Beset by thoughts of nuclear disaster, the Canadian artist started building the structure for his family’s protection in Toronto’s east end. When the project didn’t pan out, he repurposed the windowless basement as a work space.
For anyone familiar with Kurelek (and you might be without knowing it), this is jarring to learn. Arguably the greatest painter of wide-open Canadian skies made some of his most important pictures in sunless seclusion. The image of him applying heavenly blues to a canvas while hunched underground is strange enough on its own.
It also helps explain why Kurelek has been so powerful to look at during this period of isolation. I discovered this power, and the bomb shelter anecdote, while leafing The Messenger, a coffee-table book that catalogues a major Kurelek retrospective at three Canadian galleries in 2011-2012. The volume reminded me of a quality in his work with sudden currency: the feeling he expressed of being confined in a broken world and the almost miraculous ability to capture the amplitude of nature from that vantage point.
Born to tough-minded Ukrainian parents who farmed in Alberta and Manitoba during the Great Depression, Kurelek is best known for his picturesque vision of rural childhood. The illustrated children’s books A Prairie Boy’s Winter and A Prairie Boy’s Summer, with their snow forts and wheat fields, are considered Canadian classics.
The books remain lovely – and Kurelek’s facility as an illustrator makes him especially good company at home, on paper – but he was also a far more troubled, and troubling, artist than his reputation suggests.
Kurelek converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1950s after several years in a London psychiatric hospital that culminated in a suicide attempt. For the rest of his career, he saw himself as a propagandist for his creed. The world was drowning in sin and he was going to warn unbelievers. The Hieronymus Bosch-like horrors on display in Harvest of Our Mere Humanism Years, for example, include a giant hollow grasshopper encroaching on Toronto’s City Hall. A Prairie boy’s summer this is not.
When he moved back to Toronto and his work started selling, Kurelek struck a deal with his gallerist to put on one show of religious works for every show of “potboilers,” as he called his nature paintings. But a heavy religious sensibility is rarely absent even from his farm scenes, with their overwhelming Prairie skies and thin strips of land, suggesting a certain hierarchy of values. One piece in his book Fields (1976) shows two men standing in a pasture below a peach-coloured sunset. Kurelek called it, “Here today, and tomorrow fed into the oven.”
Even so, as an artist, he was less of a misanthrope than his bleak theology demanded, and what most people are drawn to in his work is its stubborn humanity. This sunny streak is betrayed by a brilliant palette that shines through at unexpected moments: the swamped wagon on a flooded farm painted a hopeful turquoise in Despondency; or the magical and somehow apt deep blue of the nocturnal snow in How Often at Night.
How, then, did Kurelek reconcile his ostensible disdain for the world with an eye that was clearly entranced by it? His barbed piety and love of Creation came together it seems, in a mystical sense that all things are connected. The world might be full of sin and corruption, but it was made by God and so was he. He once wrote about how he felt drawn to the “great, free, flat bogland” to the east of his father’s farm as a boy; how he would go to the bog whenever he got a chance, and think, “You and I belong to each other.”
This is where Kurelek’s vision of things becomes useful in these isolated times. Flipping through his books has made me realize we are beginning to face a problem he lived with for most of his adult life: How do you love a world that is tainted?
This coronavirus pandemic forces us to confront a world that seems tainted all around: imagined clouds of virus-bearing droplets filling the air, every hand and doorknob a vector, every gesture of intimacy a chance for transmission. For now, these are hard medical facts.
But doesn’t our sense of unease about the world outside already sometimes outstrip the medical reality – in the vague sense of dirtiness we have after returning from a walk, say? Doesn’t it seem, worryingly, like these feelings will outlast the disease – implant themselves as an instinct to cringe at groups gathered in the park even after that has become anodyne?
In the coming months and years, we will need to find ways of seeing the world without dwelling on its pollution. Kurelek suggests it’s possible. He saw the world as polluted, in his own way, but found things to cherish in it. The games kids play. The dance of colour in landscape. The size of the sky. All worth cherishing – even from the seclusion of a bomb shelter.
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Kids can make art to brighten Red Deer seniors’ lodges – Red Deer Advocate
The Red Deer Public Library is calling on young artists to help brighten seniors’ lodges.
The library is calling for “mini-artists” to drop off their paper creations — whether it’s flowers, drawings, letters or cards — into bins outside two participating Red Deer seniors’ lodges this week.
They are Timberstone Mews (42 Timberstone Way) and Harmony Care (200 Inglewood Dr.).
Staff from the lodges will “proudly display the creations,” bringing joy to residents and staff.
They are also planning to make some social media posts featuring art that is on display at the lodges.
A virtual Art in the Garden festival is happening on the North Shore this weekend – North Shore News
The North Shore’s annual Art in the Garden event is gearing up to go digital this weekend.
The event has been re-imagined as a livestreamed art and music demonstration this Saturday and Sunday evening, while encouraging community members to share pictures of their own green spaces online.
Last month, North Van Arts made the decision to suspend the 21st annual Art in the Garden festival due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges of practising physical distancing during an event which melds visual arts with some of the North Shore’s most extraordinary gardens.
The decision was made to offer an online version of Art in the Garden in order to keep the spirt of the long-running festival intact, according to Nancy Cottingham Powell, executive director of North Van Arts.
“Art in the Garden is the longest running North Shore garden tour and we didn’t want to just cancel this event that inspires gardeners, artists and nature lovers,” stated Powell, in a press release.
As part of its new online event, for the month of May the arts and culture organization reached out to visual artists and musicians who had participated in past festivals and asked them to create short videos outlining their work, inspiration and methodology.
The six artist videos were released weekly on North Van Arts’ social media channels and website.
This weekend, local painters Nicola Morgan and Pierre Leichner are set to take over the organization’s Instagram account as they livestream the creation of original artwork over live music performed by North Shore musicians Ava Maria Safai and Paul Silveria.
Viewers can tune in on May 30 and 31 at 7 p.m. each night.
North Van Arts is also encouraging people on the North Shore to comment and share pictures of their gardens and green spaces this weekend, as well as their own nature-inspired art, by using the hashtag #ArtintheGarden.
“These extraordinary times have forced us to look at how we connect with our community. Art in the Garden Online is an opportunity for us to support our members and local artists in a unique way,” stated Powell.
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