William Kurelek’s The Maze is a documentary about the life of celebrated Canadian artist William Kurelek, dramatically told through his paintings and his on camera revelations. The film takes an intimate look into the life of one of the 20th century’s most fascinating artists and his struggles with attempted suicide and a self professed “spiritual crisis”. Kurelek describes The Maze as “a painting of the inside of [his] skull which [he] painted while in England as a patient in Maudsley and Netherne psychiatric hospitals.” Kurelek’s surrealistic painting , featured inthe film, depicts a man’s unraveled head lying in a wheat field. A curled up laboratory rat, representing his spirit, is trapped inside a maze of unhappy thoughts and memories.

William Kurelek (1927-1977) was the son of Ukrainian immigrants who brought their old-world views to their new home in Canada. Although he demonstrated great talent at a young age, William’s ability was ridiculed by his father, who forever questioned the value of such interests. The self-doubt his father instilled in William led to suicidal despair and institutionalization. William spent a year in a British mental hospital and didn’t overcome his spiritual and emotional crisis until he converted to Catholicism in 1957. Ultimately, Kurelek made a name for himself as a landscape painter and a highly regarded illustrator of children’s books.

Kurelek looks back on his development as an artist and the anguish he suffered under the disapproving eyes of his tyrannical father. Many of his paintings are featured in the film, and the camera draws sharp focus on the minutiae of detail found in his works. The sometimes disturbing images are made all the more effective by the insights shared by Kurelek and others, not the least of whom are three psychiatrists and a priest. Members of Kurelek’s family are also interviewed, including his wife, sister, mother, and father, who begrudgingly admits pride in his son’s success-though he would still have preferred a more masculine and lucrative occupation for William. The Maze is a timeless film about an artist, his creations, his inner demons and the external influences – both good and bad – that shaped his work.


In 1969, filmmaker Robert M. Young was approached by professor James Maas of Cornell University to make a film about psychotic art. When Robert Young saw William Kurelek’s painting The Maze in Maas’s slide collection, he knew that he had to make a film about the man who painted it. “What was so remarkable about this painting to me”, says director Robert M. Young, “was that I felt I was looking into someones mind. It had in it his sexuality, his fears, his questions about whether he was really even human… and a self awareness and understanding that he was being observed by doctors and he was curious himself as to whether or not he was mental at the time he created the painting. It’s a painting that really encompasses very much in a person’s life.”

Partnered with filmmaker David Grubin, Robert M. Young set out on his quest to document and tell Kurelek’s story. A short version of the film was originally made in 1969 for educational classes to help demonstrate the strong relationship between art and psychology. In 1973, the American Film Festival named it outstanding educational documentary of the year and it went on to be studied and used in classrooms. To this day, professors of psychology and art therapy attest that there is no other film like it. But the story does not end here.

A longer and more complex version of the film was worked on in the cutting room but was never completed and became lost. Over 40 years later, the longer version was recovered and brought to life by Robert M. Young’s sons, Nick Young and Zack Young, who took a passionate interest in completing their father’s work into the final film now being released today.

Brothers Nick and Zack Young, who also comprise the Los Angeles based rock band A.i. (once signed to Dreamworks and now independent – aimusic.com), have expanded the film with an original score and modern digital animation techniques to take the viewer inside Kurelek’ssurrealistic world of art. “We feel that the longer version of the film that the public has yet to see gives a much deeper insight into Kurelek’s story,” says Nick. “We’ve been able to track down just about all of the paintings in the original film as well as others and have rephotographed them with equipment that was not available to our father when he made the original film. There is so much detail and hidden meaning in these paintings and WIlliam Kurelek’s story becomes all the more compelling when one experiences in High Definition what a masterful artist he was.”

Nick and Zack researched what music Kurelek listened to while painting to help develop the right musical themes and tonalities that were authentic to his art. “We explored traditional Ukrainian folk music and Ukrainian instruments, as well as Beethoven”, says Zack Young, “This music organically melded with Kurelek’s aesthetic and helped blur the lines between the old interview footage and the new high res paintings… between reality and what Kurelek called “unreality” . We also wrote an A.i. song for the end credits titled Someone With Me, which is named after Kurelek’s autobiography.”

The film will be featured in Canada at the first major retrospective of William Kurelek’s art in over 25 years at three major museums across Canada in 2011-2012. More information on the upcoming exhibitions, titled William Kurelek: The Messenger can be found at www.kurelek.ca.

Detail from The Maze – Kurelek described his father Dmytro as having two sides to him

I Am Proud Of My Humility (1970) detail of painting by William Kurelek depicting himself holding his son Tommy while being interviewed by filmmakers Robert M. Young & David Grubin.

The Maze (1953) painting by William Kurelek

“The Maze is a painting of the inside of my skull which I painted while I was in England as a patient in Maudsley and Netherne psychiatric hospitals. It is a story of my life… well in the sense that people tell stories by the fireplace to entertain their guests, trying to make them accept you. In this case, I wanted to be accepted as an interesting specimen.”William Kurelek, 1969


Directed by: Robert M. Young & David Grubin
Cinematography: Robert M. Young
Editors: David Grubin, Zack Young, Nick Young, Roger Cohen
Produced & Reimagined by: Nick Young & Zack Young
Original Music & Animations by: Nick Young & Zack Young (A.i.)
Executive Producers: Irwin Young & Stanley Plotnick

All images of paintings appear courtesy of the estate of William Kurelek and The Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum & Archives.

Runtime: 60min. Format: High-Definition