Geoff McMurchy, a pioneer in the local and international disability arts community, died on Sunday (July 19) at Victoria's Royal Jubilee Hospital ICU from complications due to his quadriplegia.
The founding artistic director of Kickstart Disability Arts & Culture, a position he held till 2013, was born in Edmonton on September 19, 1955. An accomplished dancer and visual artist, he suffered an accident in 1977 that left him quadriplegic. The onetime dancer and Vancouver Art School student was on his way to attend the prestigious Nova Scotia College of Art and Design when a simple swimming trip with an old friend in Alberta changed the course of his life: he dove off a short pier into water that looked deeper than it was, hit bottom, and broke his neck.
It was only later, in Vancouver, that he found his creative voice again and proceeded to dramatically challenge the public's notions of people with disabilities and their capabilities. He started by spending 15 years working toward accessibility and equal rights with the B.C. Coalition of People With Disabilities.
As he told the Straight in a cover story that ran in August, 2001: “I’m personally interested in dispelling this thing about how being disabled must be a drag. When you’re first confronted with it, maybe it’s a drag, but not all the time. And I think humour is a great way to illustrate that. Comedy is one of the best ways to release fears by letting people laugh at them.”
Most remarkably, he showed Vancouverites that people with disabilities can also make beautiful dance. Inspired by a Vancouver performance and workshop by the British dance troupe CandoCo, which is made up of able-bodied and disabled members, McMurchy, his choreographer-and-dancer sister Shannon, and a small group of others presented several pieces at the Roundhouse Dance Allsorts series in 2000. In the most striking moment in the show, a spotlit McMurchy performed in his wheelchair with sculptural metal wings that he had crafted in a breathtaking meditation on limitation and freedom. The wings were a perfect metaphor: the gleaming metal made them too heavy to fly, but their harsh beauty showed the way the human spirit could soar.
“That was actually pretty scary for me to do that, because I was not convinced that I, as a quadriplegic, would be able to explore movement, because I still am not entirely sure about the shape of my body,” McMurchy told the Straight at the time.“But several people told me it made them cry. I guess it spoke to something in the human spirit.”
McMurchy was not alone in his discovery of art as a form of change for people with disabilities. He found himself a part of a cultural renaissance sweeping the disability movement and culminating in the first international festival of its kind in Canada: KickstART! in 2001, which he helped to organize. “As a person with a disability, you have to be creative on a multitude of levels daily, especially if you’re a person who has acquired a disability," he said. "I think you’re more acutely aware of that challenge if you have to come up with new ways of thinking about things, and that does, in the context of art, create some new forms.”
McMurchy's dream was that disability art be considered on the same level as all art. “My interest is that the art that is presented should not be through the filter of ‘disability’; I would like it to be appreciated as art, and you don’t have to like it," he once said.
McMurchy went on to spearhead other projects, including cocurating the Wide Angle Media film festival organized by Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture. At that time, in 2012, he told the Straight, “While people historically I guess have been turned away from the sight of a person with a disability, especially any bare skin, there are in fact people—and I wouldn’t say all of them are fetishists—that find a kind of beauty, a sculptural beauty in bodies that are different. The possibility that people with disabilities can be considered beautiful exists.”
Anyone who knew McMurchy has been invited to pay respects at an open house/wake at his Victoria home on the evening of Wednesday (July 22), with food and music and lanterns lit all through his garden. He will be cremated at Victoria's Royal Oak Burial Park Thursday (July 23). At his request, McMurchy's ashes will be buried in his garden.
A memorial for the artist is to be held in Vancouver in the fall.