William Kurelek, CM (March 3, 1927 – November 3, 1977) was a Canadian artist and writer.


William Kurelek was born near Whitford, Alberta in 1927, the oldest of seven children in an Ukrainian immigrant family: Bill, John, Winn, Nancy, Sandy, Paul, Iris. His family lost their grain farm during the Great Depression and moved to a dairy farm near Stonewall, Manitoba. He developed an early interest in art which was not encouraged by his hard-working parents. He studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and at the Instituto Allende in Mexico, but was primarily self-taught from books.

By his mid-twenties he was living in England. In 1952, suffering from clinical depression and emotional problems he was admitted to the Maudsley Psychiatric Hospital in London. There he was treated for schizophrenia.[1] In hospital he painted, producing "The Maze", a dark depiction of his tortured youth.[2] (This 1953 work was used as the cover of the 1981 Van Halen rock album Fair Warning.) His experience in the hospital was documented in the LIFE Science Library book The Mind, published in 1965.

Originally Ukrainian Orthodox, Kurelek converted to the Roman Catholic Church in 1957. He painted a series of 160 works on the Passion of Christ, and a series of 20 depicting the Nativity as if Christ had been born in Canadian settings: an igloo, a trapper's cabin, a boxcar, a motel. He maintained a cottage near Wilno (where he got his inspiration for a book of paintings entitled The Polish Canadians), and was a friend of the nearby Madonna House Apostolate.

He returned to Toronto, writing and illustrating a series of children's books, several of which have become modern classics[3]. In 1974 he illustrated a new edition of W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen The Wind.[4] He won the Amelia Frances Howard-Gibbon Illustrator's Award for A Prairie Boy's Winter in 1974 and A Prairie Boy's Summer in 1976. In 1976, he was made a Member of the Order of Canada. He visited Ukraine in 1970 and again in 1977, publishing To My Father's Village. He died in Toronto in 1977.

Kurelek's art and writing were influenced by his childhood on the prairies, his Ukrainian-Canadian roots and his Roman Catholicism. The Canadian Encyclopedia calls him an "outstanding artist with a unique idealistic and pragmatic vision"[5]. His archives, and a substantial body of his work, including the Passion mentioned above, are held at Niagara Falls Art Gallery.


  • O Toronto(1973) Toronto : New Press.
  • Someone With Me: An Autobiography (1973) Ithaca, New York: Centre for Improvement of Undergraduate Education, Cornell University.
  • A Prairie Boy's Winter (1973) ISBN 0-88776-102-X
  • Lumberjack (1974) ISBN 0-88776-378-2
  • A Prairie Boy's Summer (1975) ISBN 0-88776-116-X
  • The Passion of Christ(1975) Niagara Falls: Niagara Falls Art Gallery & Museum.
  • Kurelek's Canada(1975) Toronto: Pagurian Press Limited.
  • The Last of the Arctic (1976) Toronto: Pagurian Press Limited.
  • A Northern Nativity (1976) ISBN 0-88776-099-6g
  • Fields(1976) Montreal: Tundra Books.
  • Someone With Me: An Autobiography(1980)(revised condensed reprint) Toronto: McClelland and Stewart.
  • The Ukrainian Pioneer(1980) Niagara Falls: Niagara Falls Art Gallery. Based on the 1971 mural of the same title.
  • The Polish Canadians(1981) Montreal: Tundra Books.
  • Someone With Me(reprint) (1988) Niagara Falls: Niagara Falls Art Gallery.
  • To My Father's Village (1988) Montreal: Tundra Books. ISBN 978-0-88776-220-8

In collaboration

  • They Sought A New World (1985) Montreal: Tundra Books. Text by Margaret Engelhart, with snippets of the artist's commentary and paintings illustrating Engelhart's text.
  • With historian Abraham Arnold. Jewish Life In Canada (1976). Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers.
  • Kurelek Country (1999) Toronto: Key Porter Books. Preface by his dealer, Av Isaacs; biographical essay by historian Ramsay Cook.
  • With Joan Murray (1983). Kurelek's Vision of Canada. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers. Exhibition catalogue.

Works illustrated by him

  • Kupchenko-Frolick, G. (1989). The Chicken Man. Stratford, Ontario: Williams-Wallace Publishers.
  • Ivan Franko. (1978). Fox Mykyta. Montreal: Tundra Books. (72 illustrations.)
  • Mitchell, W.O. (1976). Who Has Seen The Wind. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.
  • Demarco, D. (1974). Abortion In Perspective. Cincinnati: Hiltz & Hayes Publishing. (Section head illustrations.)

Film and video


  1. Cornell case study: Early Onset Schizophrenia – William Kurelek
  2. British Journal of Psychiatry (2001)
  3. [ The Canadian Encyclopedia
  4. [1]Requiem for a master storyteller: in memoriam, Douglas M Gibson Reprinted from the Globe and Mail, February 28, 1998]
  5. [ The Canadian Encyclopedia

Further reading

  • Michael Ewanchuk, William Kurelek: The Suffering Genius Steinbach, Manitoba: Perksen Printers and Michael Ewanchuk Publishing, 1996
  • P.Morley, Kurelek Toronto, Macmillan of Canada, 1986
  • Friesen, I. (1997). Earth Hell & Heaven In the Art of William Kurelek. Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press.
  • Pomedli, M. (1991). William Kurelek's Huronia Mission Paintings, Lampeter, Dyfed, Wales: The Edwin Mellen Press.

External links

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