July 15th, 2012 - Karin Hedetniemi
Sometimes at the kitchen sink, my hands submerged in sudsy water, I experience a slip in perception. Watching morning's light transform the garden into a painting, I begin to float. My consciousness expands, dislodging from its center in my mind. I feel like I'm a few inches taller, observing myself slightly outside my body.
It was one of those such moments, on a quiet morning ten years ago, when I realized: this is a rare moment of bliss. I had recently emerged from a tumultuous time in my life of intense and constant change. Now newly remarried, relocated, and recalibrated, I was strangely calm and full of peace.
I could not know that, in four summers, this world I inhabited now would suddenly disappear. All I knew, gazing at a sky of brushed watercolor clouds, was that this moment was serene and sweet.
My husband and I carried the sweetness of that sunny morning and strolled to the local art gallery. There was an exhibit featuring a retrospective on the life's work of Canadian-Ukrainian painter William Kurelek. I didn't know much of anything about art. Life had been a rocky river; I'd been in survival mode. Art galleries existed in some distant universe, far beyond the edge of my radar. But now, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria was just a ten-minute walk from our new home. It was time to get acquainted.
My husband was fourteen years my senior. An educator and history lover, he had seen a few art galleries in his lifetime; collected a few original paintings with his late wife. He was naturally comfortable wandering through the exhibit. I felt like a schoolgirl, approaching each painting with a shy reverence.
It was confusing to view Kurelek's emotionally charged, contrasting subjects. I was flummoxed by depictions of his internal religious conflicts. Disturbed by his violent images of atomic disaster — but then soothed by his Canadian prairie landscapes: honest farms and bucolic fields, the endless horizon. His nostalgic childhood scenes of Ukrainian cultural traditions captivated me: community meals, costumes, dancing. Kurelek was a skilled framer; some paintings were trimmed in Ukrainian decorative patterns.
Having lived nearly three decades on the prairies, I was deeply bonded to those open landscapes that shaped me. I felt comforted by Kurelek's pastoral rural scenes, weaving through my personal memories. The canola fields, where I once held my son's chubby toddler hand. The farmer's field where I first witnessed ribbons of aurora borealis. And oh, the mounds of prairie snow!
Gazing at Kurelek's paintings, I experienced the sensation of being slightly outside and above myself. I was profoundly moved. And something inside me changed forever.
When we left the art gallery that morning, membership cards in hand, I didn't know how long this pocket of bliss would last. I wasn't aware of the storms awaiting me around the bend. Loss and letting go. Grief, deep and silent as a black winter night.
I also couldn't know how often art would save me from despair. Momentarily lift me outside myself, make me forget my pain. Shift my thinking and offer a sense of connection, affirming the bittersweet complexity and beauty of life.
From that day forward, I would make a point to visit art galleries whenever I travelled. When I saw Kurelek's paintings at the Art Gallery of Ontario, my heart leapt — it felt like bumping into an old friend. I forged more Canadian exhibit friendships: Carr, Janvier, Blackwood, Colville. My discoveries would open conversations with my mother, revealing she had studied art in her youth. Later, I would curate paintings on my own walls — an eclectic mix of small works by local and unknown artists, each piece offering joy.
And one day, years later, I would find myself at an art gallery in Spain, experiencing art with a kind man who would offer to walk beside me into the next chapter of life.
As I write this essay, I reflect on the few snapshots I took at the Kurelek exhibit with my iPhone 4. A solitary photo of my late husband closely examines one of Kurelek's snowy scenes. To his left is a painting I don't recall. It features a young woman with a downward gaze, sitting on a driftwood log at the shore of a blue-gray sea, with pines and mountains in the background. To me, a familiar West Coast scene. I retrieve the hardcover book we purchased from the gallery, flip through the pages until I find the painting.
Kurelek titled it: When We Must Say Goodbye.
Once again, a sensation of floating overcomes me, a comforting soft peace. It seems William Kurelek had a prophetic message for me, ten years on. When we must say goodbye, remember: life will continue to offer sources of wonder. You will find this through ever-changing landscapes, the painted garden, and an endless horizon of human art yet to discover.
Karin Hedetniemi is a writer, traveler, and street photographer from Vancouver Island, Canada. Her creative nonfiction is published in Lunch Ticket, Prairie Fire, Hinterland, and other literary journals. In 2020, she won the nonfiction contest from the Royal City Literary Arts Society. Karin lives in a small house near the sea with her husband, two pups, a secret garden, and the painted sky. Find her at AGoldenHour.com or on Twitter @karinhedet.
The charities closest to Karin's heart are community food banks. Near her home, Our Place Society does good work for the most vulnerable.