In retrospect, Ivaan Kotulsky’s trajectory as an artist seems to have been pre-ordained: a journey in which circumstances have intervened to obstruct or divert his path. Forceful or trifling, no event has yet succeeded in steering him away from a creative life with art at its centre.
The first intervening circumstance was the timing of his birth, during the final months of World War Two, to Ukrainian parents interned in a forced labour camp near the city of Koln, Germany.
The second circumstance was the family’s immigration to Canada in 1949, to the town of Smoky Lake, a farming community in northern Alberta. Here, Ivaan bore witness to a harsh reality: his frail father’s physical labour was the only key that might open the door to prosperity in the New World.
The third, and perhaps the most compelling, circumstance was the expectation of conformity within a narrow community bounded by family, church, school and the tightrope of language – Ukrainian on one end, English on the other. Breaking with tradition and family expectations, Ivaan left home as a young man to forge a life on his own terms.
The fourth circumstance, the need for money, although it has loomed large in the lives of artists throughout the ages, has perhaps resonated least of all in Ivaan’s artistic life. So strong has been his determination to live a life that satisfies him on a creative level, it can accurately be said of Ivaan that he has never worked a day at something he did not enjoy.
The fifth circumstance, ill health, has made significant incursions upon his creative life. “Death by a thousand cuts”, Ivaan calls the increasing physical debilitation, resulting from a series of strokes he has suffered over the past eight years. Ivaan acknowledges, but does not concede, the place of illness in his life. Most of any artist’s work occurs inside his head, and this is truer of Ivaan than of anyone. For Ivaan, forced inactivity is a form of meditation, and always precedes a period of intense creative output.
The role of geography in forging Ivaan’s determination to live as an artist is enormous. In 1954, Ivaan was a Canadian Tom Sawyer. His kingdom was the banks of Toronto’s Don River, the wellspring which was the source of his powerful imagination. The industrial lands of his Cabbagetown neighbourhood provided a wealth of raw material for boyhood experiments. Ivaan’s future was cemented when, playing on the sidewalk in front of his home early one evening, he observed his father trudging wearily home from his job as a labourer for the city transit authority. “If that’s what work is, I never want to do it”, Ivaan resolved – a promise he has steadfastly kept.
Not all of Ivaan’s early memories of work were negative, however. In Smoky Lake, his family lived with the family of the village blacksmith. Ivaan’s fascination with fire and his innate understanding of the properties of molten metal are directly linked to the experience of watching the blacksmith at his trade.
Sweepings: Treasures from the Atelier Floor is an exhibition of pieces that Ivaan started to make for his own pleasure during the luxurious periods between clients. Invariably left unfinished, when the need to commence a commissioned work became pressing, the pieces literally became swept aside and never resumed, either because the creative process that inspired the piece had been exhausted or – more often – because the partly-finished work had already taken on a life of its own and required no further release from its creator. Like a musical motif, like a fragment of speech, like an entire world, it had already been sung into existence.
© Eya Donald Greenland