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William Kurelek: A Prairie Boy’s Summer

July 16, 2011 - September 4, 2011

AWE Gallery

The twenty works making up the series A Prairie Boy’s Summer are the works of Ukrainian-Canadian artist, Willam Kurelek (1927-77). It was in 1959 that he began working in the visual arts as a framer for the noted Toronto art dealer, Avrom Isaacs, who also gave Kurelek his first solo exhibition in 1960. Kurelek was of seven children of a Ukrainian-immigrant family who farmed grain in Alberta followed by dairy in Manitoba. Growing up in this rural environment during the Great Depression had been hard on his family and, when he chose a life as artist over farmer, his family rejected him permanently. However, the experience gave him much experience on which to build an art practice and a great many of his images expose his personal views on his life.

Kurelek’s enchanting style of realism and narrative has earned him respect from wide-ranging audiences since the 1960s and, today, his works are among those most coveted by private collectors of Canadian art. His education in the arts was limited but not to the exclusion of some training at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto and at the Instituto Allende in Mexico. Those artists in the European tradition whose works he admired include Heironymus Bosch and Peter Breughel whose complex and fantasy-based narratives are echoed in Kurelek’s aesthetic.

Kurelek was prolific in both the visual arts and in writing and published the autobiography, Someone With Me in 1973. His conjoined interest in both media came together in his work narrating and illustrating children’s books: A Prairie Boy’s Summer was accompanied by a book of the same title published 1975 and paralleled a series and book he had also illustrated and narrated called A Prairie Boy’s Winter. Both volumes earned him numerous awards and also a reputation as a pre-eminent children’s book illustrator and A Prairie Boy’s Summer earned him the Librarians Illustrators Award.

In both his paintings and his writings, there has long-been a strong autobiographical side to Kurelek’s work and, in A Prairie Boy’s Summer, his self-portrait appears as the boy with the white shirt, blue trousers and runners. In contrast to the artist’s personal challenges with Depression and conflicting belief systems throughout his adult life, several works in this series depict a world of charm, pleasure and joy as he looked back on his youth. This collection of works was first exhibited at the AGW in 1975 when the Gallery opened in its first downtown location at 445 Riverside Drive West and, since then, has been shown on many more occasions to the delight of countless visitors.

The book A Prairie Boy’s Summer is available in the AGW Gift Shop.

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