By Cole Hartin
William Kurelek (1927-77) was a Canadian artist and author who spent much of the second half of his anguished life grappling with Catholicism. His is not likely a name that would be familiar to many Americans, which is too bad. Canadians are more likely to recognize his work, especially his children’s books, A Prairie Boy’s Summer and its companion, A Prairie Boy’s Winter, though his religious art is far more compelling.
Kurelek, born to a family of Ukrainian immigrants and raised in the vast prairies of Alberta and Manitoba, painted in a folksy style that reflects the loneliness of the barren landscape, but also the joys of life on a Western Canadian farm. Kurelek eventually fled his rural life, studied at the Ontario College of Art in Toronto, and from there moved to England in his 20s. While he was raised in the Orthodox faith of his family, he drifted into atheism. It was during his treatment for depression and schizophrenia in England that one of his therapists, a devout Catholic, reintroduced him to faith, after which he was conditionally rebaptized and received into the Roman Catholic Church.
After Kurelek’s conversion, his art took on more religious themes that reflected his revitalized spirituality and served as an apologia for the Catholic Church. These religious explorations started to meld with Kurelek’s depictions of modern Canadian life and combined often unsettling Christian imagery with domestic scenes. For example, The Autumn of Life depicts the smiling faces of a farming family as they prepare for a fall portrait. At first glance, the image is cheery and nostalgic, but on closer inspection one sees a nuclear blast in the background, and more unnerving even than this, a naked, crucified Christ only slightly visible from a nearby tree, surrounded by tormenting dogs.
The combination of traditional Christian symbolism with homey family scenes is what Kurelek does best, in my view. Often these works are startling and at times grotesque, pointing to uncomfortable realities that require fortitude of the viewer. Many of Kurelek’s more startling works would be best reserved for adult or perhaps mature teenage viewers. One notable exception to this, however, is his children’s Christmas book, A Northern Nativity, though it is increasingly difficult to hunt down. (I recommend trying AbeBooks.)
In this beautifully illustrated volume, Kurelek walks the reader through a sequence of dreams. He writes from the perspective of himself as a 12-year-old boy and suggests that these dreams occurred leading up to the Christmas season. Kurelek evokes a trance-like atmosphere with his prose and images that brings to mind the same tranquil ambiance as The Polar Express.
While many children’s Christmas stories play up vague sentimentality, or cheap moralism, A Northern Nativity sets itself apart with a sustained reflection on the incarnation, the Holy Family, and how we might easily dismiss them.
The book is set up so that each dream is portrayed with an image, and an adjacent page of text that describes the scene, including the 12-year-old William’s reaction to it. Each dream is a reimagining of the nativity of Christ in many of the varying landscapes of Canada, from the Rocky Mountains in the West, to barren fields, greasy car garages, and fishing shacks on the East Coast. The only constant is harsh conditions, and reverent depictions of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus making their way as a family.
I was reading this to my oldest son, Ambrose, who is 6, and I found myself often overwhelmed with emotion. Each image and its accompanying reflection are worthy of meditation, but I found a few particularly striking.
One image that stood out was the Holy Family trekking across a snowy pass into the mountains somewhere in the West. They overlook a vista of skiers and luxurious chalet, while Joseph leads Mary, who is atop a small horse, hunched over to keep her son warm. William wonders if the skiers will notice them, and if they will be welcome in such a decadent vacation environment.
Another image shows a room full of adults, mostly men, who are crowded around tables in a sparse hall that has been decked out for the Christmas season. Volunteers, Kurelek tells us, have given their time on Christmas Day to cook a turkey dinner with all of the fixings for the poor in the neighborhood. We can see the Holy Family, who are Black in this dream, sitting in the middle of the crowd, with their heads bowed, eating the meal along with everyone else who is down and out.
The image of the Arctic featured on the cover of the book is also illuminating. Mary sits in a half-igloo with Christ, who is holding a husky puppy, while Joseph is in the background of the frigid night, feeding his sled dogs, preparing for the journey ahead. In this painting, the Holy Family are Inuit.
The combined force of the book is a reminder of the humanity of Christ, that he took on flesh among a particular people, and entered the world not as a universal man, but as a poor, first-century Jew. Kurelek imagines what Christ’s incarnation might look like in Canada at the time he was writing, in the nitty-gritty, often heartbreaking realities of life. In all of the images, the Holy Family is poor, often relying on the kindness of strangers. These images stir the heart and evoke love for Christ, somehow bringing greater attention to what he suffered by recasting his life among different people in a different time.
With the glut of children’s Christmas literature, it is difficult to find treasures like A Northern Nativity. It would make meaningful reading for any family this season.