Hometown artist William Kurelek honoured near Stonewall

Few know the world-famous artist grew up on a dairy farm near the community north of Winnipeg

Some know a great artist grew up on a farm near here and was inspired by the Interlake landscape around them.

But not many.

Later this month, a small local citizens’ group hopes to begin to change that by unveiling a monument dedicated to Canadian artist William Kurelek. The site is at the corner of Highway 7 and 67 east of Stonewall.

“He was raised a mile and a half from this site,” says Doug Pickell, chair of the Stonewall-Rockwood Kurelek Tribute Citizens Committee.

“He’s a world-renowned artist, yet virtually unknown in the area where he grew up. That was the inspiration for the monument.”

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His famous “Manitoba Party” painting — of a festive feast in a tent — actually took place on a nearby farm too. The granite and limestone, cement and steel monument has been designed to look like that tent.

That has a very personal meaning to Barry Tomyk. Their family’s farm is where two actual parties took place that provided the inspiration for Kurelek to paint “Manitoba Party.”

“It’s very personal to us,” he said. “He drew the ‘Manitoba Party’ from memory of two parties which took place on the Tomyk farm. One of them was my mom and dad’s wedding.”

Their farm has signage with the “Manitoba Party” depicted on it, he added.

William Kurelek, often called Canada’s Van Gogh, moved as a youngster from Alberta with his family to the next-door dairy farm in 1934. He produced a vast volume of work over his lifetime and is widely known for his observations of culture, community and family life, often depicted with deep moral or religious messages. His work, depicted in series like “Big Lonely” and “A Prairie Boy’s Winter” are also intimate accounts of rural life and landscape.

Tomyk says he sees so much of the Interlake in Kurelek’s paintings and even knows some of the precise locations that inspired the artist. He drove him around in the early 1960s, when he returned to Manitoba to take photos and sketch locales used later in his paintings.

“He needed someone to drive him around. I took him to all the familiar spots that he could remember back in his younger years,” Tomyk recalls. “I look at the pictures and I think, ‘that brings back old memories,’” he said. “Plus, out in the country, I know exactly where he was for some of those paintings.”

Yet knowledgeable as some, like Tomyk are, with Kurelek’s life and art, many around here don’t know anything about him, let alone that he grew up here. A casual kitchen table chat among rural neighbours a few years back convinced a few of them to change that, says Pickell.

“At that time we said, ‘we could build a monument to him and somehow build the ‘Manitoba Party’ into it,” he said. The idea stayed on the backburner until the RM of Rockwood and Stonewall got permission from Suncor Energy to establish a park on a site at the highway intersection once occupied by a gas station.

“Then we realized this would be the ideal location for a tribute to Kurelek,” said Pickell. “We formed an informal little committee, came up with the design, got an engineer drawing, and got to work.”

They’re excited about the prospect of others becoming familiar with Kurelek’s art.

“He always called this area his spiritual home, this landscape and the people here,” said Pickell, adding those familiar with the artist’s life are also inspired by how he overcame depression.

“He suffered tremendously from depression,” he said. “But he worked through that.

“I think people who know William Kurelek are inspired by his personal story and his personal journey. It’s a fulfilling experience to understand his art.”

On August 23 at 2 p.m. the public is invited to attend a dedication ceremony where dignitaries and members of Kurelek’s family are expected to attend.

There will also be a special Ukrainian dinner following the dedication, and a limited number of tickets are available by contacting 204-467-8504 or 204-467-8446. At that time a U.S. film crew will also be sharing excerpts of a movie it’s producing about Kurelek’s life.

The $35,000 monument was funded by donations from the town of Stonewall, RM, provincial and federal governments, as well as the Ukrainian Canadian Foundation of Taras Shevchenko. Residents have also donated cash and funds from promotional 16-month calendars depicting Kurelek’s art which remain on sale at the local municipal offices.

About the author

Reporter

Lorraine Stevenson

Lorraine Stevenson is a reporter and photographer for the Manitoba Co-operator with 25 years experience writing news and features. She was previously a reporter with the Farmers Independent Weekly and has also written for community newspapers in Winnipeg and Manitoba's Interlake.

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