Many artists have grappled with how to depict abortion. Ernest Hemingway wrote an entire short story about abortion, and poets like Gwendolyn Brooks and Anne Sexton have composed some truly brutal lines about their own experiences. Many musicians have channeled their pain and loss into powerful lyrics. But in the visual arts—aside from film—abortion has been almost entirely absent. Taken together, works by two remarkable painters—American Norman Rockwell and Canadian William Kurelek—show why we urgently need more artists to expose the mass murder of the unborn in our society.
By the time he died in 1978, Norman Rockwell had produced over 4,000 original works and was likely the best-loved American painter ever. In his paintings were swimming holes and church services, Thanksgiving dinners and farewells, sports games and awkward dates, personal prayers and political events. Rockwell documented Americans and their everyday lives at their best, creating timeless scenes that spoke directly to the core memories of his audience. In fact, Rockwell’s art became so popular that he helped to shape America’s collective consciousness, holding up a mirror to the high drama of ordinary living. “Without thinking too much about it in specific terms, I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed,” Rockwell once said of his work.
Rockwell was also capable of darker art. His 1965 painting Murder in Mississippi is a chilling rendering of the 1964 murders of civil rights workers Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Alan Goodman. Klansmen had shot them point blank and pushed dirt over their corpses with a tractor. The painting shows a bloody James Chaney slumped in the arms of a colorless Klansman with another young man dead or dying next to them. Rockwell’s more famous 1964 work The Problem We All Live With shows little Ruby Bridges being escorted to school by federal marshals, the wall behind them spattered with tomato juice and a racist epithet.
But when it came to abortion—that most intimate violence—Rockwell may have run dry. In her 2001 biography Norman Rockwell: A Life, Laura Claridge argues that one of Rockwell’s famous Saturday Evening Post covers likely has a chilling backstory. Claridge reports that according to one of Rockwell’s children, in 1938 the artist took Mary, his second wife (there were three), to England for an abortion. The Post cover for October 8, 1938—the first after the alleged abortion—is called Blank Canvas, and depicts Rockwell sitting in front of an easel with an empty canvas in front of him, scratching his head. On the corner of the canvas is a note: “DUE DATE.” According to Claridge, this emptiness represents the loss of the aborted Rockwell baby. There was no child to lovingly render—the child was gone, and Rockwell could not (or would not) paint his bloody demise.
William Kurelek, who would become known as “Canada’s Norman Rockwell,” was born in a prairie shack during the winter of 1927. He grew up working the land and tending the livestock on his parents’ Albertan grain farm. He discovered his talent for drawing early on, covering his bedroom walls with vivid sketches. In 1946 Kurelek headed to the University of Manitoba, where he majored in Latin, English, and history. He also began to grapple with the mental illness (professionally undiagnosed) that would afflict him his entire adult life.
In his youth, Kurelek worked in Edmonton as a roadbuilder, in Quebec as a logger, and in Toronto’s Royal York Hotel as a waiter, with brief stints abroad in Mexico (to study art) and England (for psychiatric care). By 1954, Kurelek’s mental struggles drove him to religion. His close friend Margaret Smith, an occupational therapist and devout Catholic, led the way. He sought out spiritual instruction, took several correspondence courses on Catholicism, and ultimately joined the Guild of Catholic Artists and Craftsmen. (His 1955 painting Lord That I May See encapsulated his struggle.)
Over the ensuing two decades—Kurelek would die of cancer at age fifty—he produced more than 2,000 paintings and drawings and became one of the most successful artists in Canadian history. His childhood on the prairies, his young adulthood in the logging camps, his travels across Canada—these became simple, evocative scenes that would capture the hearts of millions and turn him into Canada’s preeminent visual chronicler. But Kurelek also boldly tackled abortion.
Kurelek was one of the founding members of Toronto Right to Life and often donated the money he earned from his paintings to pro-life organizations. He provided the sketches for Dr. Donald DeMarco’s 1974 book Abortion in Perspective and prevailed on his Montreal publisher to permit pro-life groups to use his Nativity paintings for Christmas cards. In 1971, he produced one of his most shocking works as part of the “O Toronto” series: a painting titled Our My Lai: The Massacre of Highland Creek. The painting shows Toronto’s Highland Creek cutting through a snowy landscape lined with bloody buckets of small dead babies. Some lie curled up on the bank, staining the snow. Blood runs down the frame. In the background is the sterile white complex of the Scarborough Centenary Hospital, presumably the place where the babies were killed.
“I guess it’s really the strongest, and probably to some who don’t agree with me on the subject of abortion, the most offensive picture,” Kurelek wrote. “Since, however, I know that unborn babies are living human beings, I believe myself duty-bound to speak for them, because they can’t speak out or defend themselves when they are being killed.” In fact, Kurelek produced one other painting of abortion two years earlier, but it is not well-known—he donated it to Toronto Right to Life and it currently sits in a warehouse. It is titled Unwanted Citizen for the Just Society, a reference to former prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s phrase. The painting depicts a bloody bucket being tipped into a garbage can, a small baby still attached to the placenta spilling out. In the background, the legs of his freshly emptied mother can still be seen in the stirrups, and bloodstained abortion tools sit on a white bed.
The difference between Rockwell’s Blank Canvas and Kurelek’s Our My Lai is stark. Rockwell specialized in everyday scenes that tugged at the heartstrings but also was capable of painting America’s uglier sins—a man collapsing into the embrace of his Mississippi murderer, Ruby Bridges wading through a Red Sea of rage. If Claridge is right about Blank Canvas, however, when it came to abortion, it appears Rockwell could only default to a due date and a what-if. Where is the child—an American child like those that appear in many of his famous Post covers? The murder of the unborn is, unfortunately, now as normal as the many carefree scenes Rockwell painted. Abortion is now as American as apple pie.
Kurelek faced the subject head-on. In his works, he confronted the public with what abortion was, and what Canadians were accepting when they permitted abortion. Not all Canadian children lived long enough to play in the snow or enjoy a prairie boy’s summer. Not all had their rights protected in Trudeau’s Just Society. Many died in operating rooms and were tossed in the trash. Kurelek put faces on an often-faceless tragedy and exposed those invisible legions of unborn children who were whisked off the scene with scarcely a trace and died out of frame.
Kurelek’s buckets of bloody babies highlight that abortion is not merely about a what, it is about a who. We desperately need more such artists to expose the carnage beneath the surface of our society, and to begin a conversation on why it must end.
Jonathon Van Maren is a public speaker, writer, and pro-life activist.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.
Photo by Jim Forest via Creative Commons. Image cropped.