Conserving our Treasures: Kurelek’s Ukrainian Pioneer Women

The next time you come to the Ukrainian Museum of Canada, you will notice that a beloved exhibition is no longer on view.

The William Kurelek Ukrainian Pioneer Women Special Collection has been a highlight for visitors to the Museum for nearly 20 years. This collection consists of 12 paintings that were commissioned in 1965 by the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada (founders of our Museum) – an initiative led by Anna Balan, Olga Hamara, and Stella Olynyk in recognition of the Canadian Centennial in 1967.

The now famous series celebrates Ukrainian women and the ways they helped to shape Canadian settler life. Perennially popular, the paintings have been housed in their own gallery inside the Museum at 910 Spadina Crescent since 2004. The intimate setting of this space has provided an opportunity for visitors to fully immerse themselves in Kurelek’s work.

Like all of Kurelek’s paintings, the Ukrainian Pioneer Women series is colourful and highly detailed. The works invite close inspection by visitors – and sometimes too close. This is because many of Kurelek’s paintings are “unglazed,” which means that their surfaces are unprotected by glass—a result of Kurelek having made all his own frames, which are often as intricately painted as the pictures themselves.

As a precautionary measure, at the end of summer 2022, museum staff carefully removed the Kurelek paintings for temporary placement in the museum’s collection storage. Here, they will be reviewed by a professional conservator this fall. This is a standard museological practice to check the paintings for cleanliness and any need of small repair.

When we return the paintings for display after any necessary conservation has been completed, we will ensure that new measures are in place to keep these important paintings safely preserved for the enjoyment of generations to come.