It's easy to get sucked into The Maze, the surreal and nightmarish Bosch-like painting that Canadian artist William Kurelek (1927-1977) created as a mental patient in England in 1953. Comprised of 17 panels, it's a naked glimpse into his troubled mind. The Maze is so powerful and dynamic, in fact, that it ensnares you more like a movie or graphic novel than a painting. No wonder award-winning director Bob Young (The Ballad of Gregorio Cortez, The Eskimo: Fight for Life) was inspired to document Kurelek's complex life with partner David Grubin for an educational short back in 1969, which has since become a hallmark of art therapy. And no wonder Young's two sons, Nick and Zack (of LA rock band, A.i.), were seduced into restoring the lost footage they recently recovered and making a much fuller work of their own via digital technology.
William Kurelek's The Maze will premiere at the Mill Valley Film Festival on Oct. 12, and will also kick off a major exhibition of Kurelek's work in Canada at the Winnipeg Art Gallery on October 13 through November 26. It's also been accepted at the Starz Denver Film Festival (Nov. 2-13).
"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," Kurelek confessed to Young, trying to explain his unraveling head lying in a wheat field. "In this case, I wanted to be accepted as an interesting specimen."
The documentary explores the revelatory connection between art and psychosis, juxtaposing interviews with Kurelek's family (particularly his domineering and self-loathing Ukrainian father) and powerful images of his dark art. A curled up laboratory rat, representing his spirit, is trapped inside a maze of unhappy thoughts and memories.
"We didn't get what an incredible artist he was at first because the images of his paintings were so faded," recalls Nick. "But 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. We've added so much more detail and hidden meanings by animating Kurelek's work. He was such a prolific painter; he would work all night and had such pent up energy that he would finish in a few days. We take you deeper without detracting from the integrity of our dad's original work."
Indeed, Nick and Zack have used animation to dimensionalize the paintings, not only by separating them into layers to create a sense of depth with Adobe After Effects, but also by experimenting with Houdini software from Side Effects to create a sense of movement. This is achieved in another epic work, Behold Man Without God, a watercolor on paper board.
"There's this pig orchestra being conducted by this mad monkey, and we've animated it and added music from Beethoven's Ode to Joy, whose lyrics are on this tablet next to the orchestra," Zack adds. "Once you animate it, you can understand it more. It's almost like he painted them in a state of motion anyway. By tracing and pulling these images out, the level intensifies."
There's a nice, familial irony at play here. Another one of Young's early documentaries, Children of Fate: Life and Death in a Sicilian Family (1961), was presumed lost after NBC refused to air it. But then it was recovered and restored in 1993 by another son, Andrew.
"What Nick and Zack have achieved is a kinesthetic experience beyond the paintings," Young beams. "I was fascinated by Kurelek's spiritual journey [he eventually converted to Catholicism and died of cancer]. But they've done something unique. This is experiential storytelling that I've never seen before."
[First Picture Credit: Bethlem Royal Hospital Museum & Archives]