Lisaard House / Innisfree House

‘He wants to make his mark on the city’

Kitchener Market’s ‘music man’ finds joy even as he faces terminal cancer
By Valerie Hill, Waterloo Region Record

KITCHENER — When Kitchener Market’s longtime busker, Curtis Tulk, looks at you with his startling blue eyes, there is kindness and a deep need to connect — but also a touch of sadness.
Tulk has terminal lung and bone cancer and is spending his final days at Innisfree House Hospice in Kitchener, in a room spilling with light from the glass doorway leading to a flower garden. His room is bright, airy and frequently filled with people who love the gentle singer that has been a fixture at the Saturday market for more than 20 years.
He is largely recognized for his black cowboy hat and playing those hurtin’ country songs, but despite his nickname — “The Music Man” — Tulk really wanted to be known as a painter.
The Record ran a feature on Tulk in 2015 at the opening of his first exhibit at Kitchener City Hall’s Berlin Tower. At the time he told a reporter “I wish I’d started this 20 years ago. I’d be more famous by now.”
Tulk, always cagey about his age, admits to being born in 1935. He still hopes that, as his life winds down, his art will become his legacy and people will recognize the name Curtis Tulk long after he is gone. On Sept. 1, Tulk’s art will be exhibited and sold at the Kitchener Market, made affordable so everyone who wants to own an original Tulk will be able to afford one without a fat bank account. Funds from the sales will be donated to charity.
His niece, Amy Tulk, explained “he wants to make his mark on the city of Kitchener before he’s done with it.”
“No pressure,” he jokes. “I’m an artist, not a magician.”
To ensure the sale will be a good one, Tulk had all his unfinished works brought to his hospice room, along with paints and brushes.
He is determined to complete the pieces as well as paint a few new ones, like a self-portrait, the first time he’s ever painted himself. Tulk chose to work from a photo of when he was a rather dashing 20-year-old.
Tulk’s hands are not steady, and he sometimes asks his friend Melody Caputo to hold the canvas up while he paints. He also occasionally discards brushes and uses his fingers to dab the paint.
There is one portrait he has completed, an image of his ex-wife. He said he’s not concerned if she tosses it away, painting her image was just something he needed to do.
Tulk said she was his driver when he came to Kitchener and performed with his band, Harmony Ramblers. Tulk never learned to drive so he was dependent on her. When they broke up “she left and took the car with her,” he said. That ended his career as a band leader so he resorted to busking in various places before settling in the Kitchener Market in the mid-1990s.
In 2004, market management escorted all the buskers off the premises after a turf war broke out. They could return but only after passing an audition.
The public outcry was swift and loud: Tulk must return, no audition necessary. The public won and he’s performed undisturbed ever since. Until the cancer diagnoses this past June.
Tulk was born one of eight kids in a village south of Gander, N.L. and in 1962, when jobs were scarce, he headed west to Kitchener, landing factories jobs, which were plentiful in the 1960s. He married in 1968 and had a son who later died in a motorcycle crash.
He has returned to his hometown once, just for a couple of years in the early 1980s where was able to teach art.
As an artist, Tulk is largely self-taught, but he did complete a correspondence course through an American art school. Fame as an artist, however, always eluded him.
Tulk’s work is distinct for his wild use of colour and varied subject matter, everything from birds perching on flowered branches to old buildings to scruffy street cats. The oil and acrylic works have similarities to Nova Scotia folk artist, Maud Lewis. There is a simplicity and innocence, with an exuberance of spirit. It’s impossible not to be charmed.
It’s also impossible not to be charmed speaking to Tulk who refuses to simply give up on life despite his diagnoses. His voice might be weakened but his spirt is strong and, since moving to Innisfree, his blood levels have improved and his appetite returned. He is happier, but accepts the inevitable outcome.
Tulk’s nephew, Lorne King, said the family is taking life one day at a time, not looking forward, not dwelling in the past, just enjoying Uncle Curtis.
“We don’t know how much time we have with him,” said King. “He’s trying to stay positive.
“We still laugh and he’s still playing music.”
At one point, with very little encouragement, Tulk pulled out his banjo and sang a few bars of “Oh Susanna,” apologizing for his inability to play with the same gusto he once did.
Amy Tulk said the family has taken him to the Kitchener Market on Saturdays whenever he feels strong enough, mostly to visit, but occasionally he can pluck out a few tunes. She has been deeply touched by the reaction of the vendors.
“The people there are like family,” she said. “There’s so much love for him.”
Twitter: @HillRecord