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Art, family and masks: Darlene Kulig’s pandemic journey

Darlene Kulig
Toronto-based visual artist Darlene Kulig.

In her more than three decades as a visual artist, Darlene Kulig never imagined her artwork would be featured on face masks.

Yet for this Toronto-based artist, the COVID-19 curveball has inspired a way to raise money for cancer research in memory of a beloved nephew, Craig Kulig, who succumbed to the disease four years ago.

A graduate of the Ontario College of Art (now OCAD U) Kulig studied communications and design, graduating in 1984. She describes herself as a “semi-abstracted spirited landscape artist” who paints natural environments that speak to her heart, in a style influenced by Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, that she infuses with “luminosity and vibration.”

Kulig's beloved nephew Craig passed away after a courageous battle with a rare and aggressive type of soft-tissue cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma, at age 23. A vibrant and wise young man who knew his way around cars, Craig enjoyed jamming on his acoustic bass guitar, and could be counted on for good advice. He was deeply loved by his circle of family and friends. His father, Bruce, established the Craig Kulig Memorial Fund at the Ottawa Hospital to raise money for more effective and gentler cancer therapies.

Earlier this year, Kulig underwent a brand-boosting exercise with the support of some local college students enrolled in a social media marketing program. The efforts raised her profile and eventually attracted the attention of BYOM (pandemic lingo for Bring Your Own Mask), a new business launched by a family-run Mississauga-based graphic design and image-printing company that makes and sells designer fabric masks with a top-quality filter. An initial conversation led to a collaboration whereby BYOM is producing and selling adult and child masks featuring some of her paintings while directing a portion of each sale to the Craig Kulig Memorial Fund. The masks can also be purchased via Kulig’s website.

“Craig was a lovely and talented young man who was the centre of his family and seeing what they went through, and how they want to help other families suffering with cancer, I find it so inspiring, and I want to be a part of that,” Kulig says.

Mask art is just the latest venture in Kulig’s long and accomplished career in fine and commercial art. For more than 20 years, she ran D.M. Kulig Design, serving clients in the corporate, institutional, non-profit and arts spheres, including the Ontario Ministry of Health, the Ontario Securities Commission and the Canadian Opera Company.  During the last ten years, Kulig has been painting full-time.

She has also taught painting, including at Gilda’s Club Greater Toronto charity for those affected by cancer, a disease that has also taken the lives of Kulig’s parents and a good friend. “Art helps me cope,” she says.

It seems she’s not the only one who feels that way, as business is brisk for Kulig, with orders for her artwork up. A U.S. book and stationary publisher is producing puzzles, greeting cards and calendars with images of her art. And the masks are now on sale at the Ottawa Hospital Gift Shop, the Art Gallery of Hamilton and The Hospital for Sick Children (SickKids). She credits OCAD U for encouraging her to trust and express her artistic vision.

“It helped me learn to be creative and unafraid, curious and open-minded,” Kulig says. “I got to learn about my abilities as an artist, and to learn with other artists in a supportive environment.”

Kulig’s work can be found in galleries across Canada and the United States, as well as private collections around the world. 

Lisa McLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries.
Lisa McLeod, Minister of Heritage, Sport, Tourism and Culture Industries, wearing Kulig's Dragonfly New Dawn face mask. Photo: courtesy CBC.

Darlene Kulig's dragonfly mask.
Dragonfly New Dawn is Kulig's painting in honour of her nephew, Craig, who died of cancer in 2016. The dragonfly symbolizes the power of personal growth and change.