William Kurelek (1927-1977) is well known for his paintings of childhood memory. They often convey a sense of timeless innocence. He also chronicled the experiences of various cultural groups in Canada, and devoted entire series to Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish, Irish, French-Canadian, and Inuit peoples. And then there was Kurelek as an anguished prophet of a modern apocalypse, his art an indictment of the secular age and a testament to his unwavering Roman Catholic faith.
While William Kurelek was known for embarking on numerous sketching pilgrimages across Canada to some of his favourite places, much of his work was done in his home on Balsam Avenue in Toronto. There, Kurelek laboured in a small, poorly lit room located in his basement.
In this former coal cellar, Kurelek built and decorated cupboards that stored paintings and tools of his trade. The walls and ceiling were adorned with elaborately painted and carved Ukrainian designs. While Kurelek completed much of the work himself, he also incorporated walls decorated with flower patterns that had been removed from the home of a Ukrainian peasant woman he knew, as well as ceiling trim carved by a recent Indian immigrant.
Despite its vibrant embellishments, Kurelek’s studio was windowless and cramped, measuring roughly 4 by 6 feet. With no room for an easel, he usually painted on masonite boards laid flat on his worktable. Although he often imagined himself a modern version of the medieval illuminator, his workspace more closely resembled a bunker than an artist’s studio.
In the mid 1960s, convinced that nuclear war was inevitable in the wake of mounting global Cold War tensions, Kurelek was determined to build a bomb shelter in his basement. Kurelek’s idea was met with resistance from his family, friends, neighbours, and city officials. His plans became public knowledge in 1967 when two Toronto newspapers ran articles covering his endeavour. Aware of the artist’s ardent Christian faith, observers questioned his apparent motive of self-preservation.
In 1968 Kurelek responded to criticisms in a letter, which he distributed among friends and detractors, that he had a premonition of an approaching worldwide calamity. He wrote the following: “I foresee nuclear war in the next 10 to 15 years. A large part of the human race will die. With the modern, largely urban way of life destroyed or drastically crippled, there will follow a political tyranny of some kind….I believe Christians have to go on living and persevere in their Faith” after the devastation. “Once the initial nuclear attacks are over, we will emerge from the shelter and will be compelled to migrate to the countryside or even into northland forests…. [I]t seems to me that those who prepare for the coming catastrophe with the intention of carrying on after it’s over, are actually less pessimistic than those who throw up their hands and say…’what’s the use!’.” (Letter from William Kurelek to Ken Shorey, 10 August 1968, file 10, vol. 9, William Kurelek Fonds, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa).
By the early 1970s, Kurelek had retired his plans to transform his workspace into a bomb shelter, although the room would continue to serve as his studio until his death in 1977. Before the dismantling of the studio in 2010, when the family house was sold, its massive door was the only visible sign that remained of Kurelek’s bomb shelter scheme.