Conversations with Strange Beauty: Geoffrey McMurchy

This week is bustling with energy at 401 Richmond St. W., for the 2015 Tangled Arts Festival: Strange Beauty. During installation week, Tangled’s Communications Coordinator Lindsay Fisher took the opportunity to get to know the artists and document conversations about disability art. The following conversation took place in the YYZ Gallery as Geoff was installing his show Time Lapse.

Hi Geoff, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. Can you tell us a little bit about your show here at Strange Beauty?

Well, it’s somewhat random contemplations around things that have had a big influence in my life and how, across the span of your life, certain events or ideas can relate to each other – make you wonder about what effects the earlier events might have on the later ones, on one’s own personal development.

Geoffrey McMurchy installing his show with his assistanceHence the title?

Yes, hence the title, because I’ve drawn from images that I created when I was seven or eight years old, when I spent a year in England with my family. I went to school there and we had a little workbook that we had to draw a picture in – report on the weather or what we were doing or whatever, in text, as a way of practicing our handwriting. Then we had to draw a picture to illustrate what we were talking about – or any picture I suppose – but that’s what I did.

I guess the title is a bit misleading. It might make you think about time lapse photography and it’s not photographic at all. I like double meanings but it doesn’t relate to time lapse photography. So yeah, to get a bit more specific, I had come across some workbooks from when I was a kid – my mother had saved them – and they kind of made me laugh. I think spending that time there as a seven year old did have quite an influence on my development as a boy. The other big event was breaking my neck in a diving accident so at least one of my pieces directly relates to that.

The largest piece is derived from an x-ray of my neck and part of my head that shows the site of the spinal cord damage. So that event, because it was like growing up all over again in many ways – learning real basic stuff like sitting up without falling over and brushing your teeth and learning how to feed yourself and specifically in this context – how to write. I was a self-identified artist. I was very concerned about how that was going to play out, whether I would be able to draw and stuff. I didn’t end up getting the finger movement I had hoped for but you know, I’ve obviously managed to find ways to draw anyways. So a couple of these pieces from the workbook were, as I said, around learning how to print – that just recalled learning how to print and draw all over again later. I was twenty one when I broke my neck.

I chose a couple of images from the workbook, the narrative was around a christmas tree decoration I was making that was a robin. So I drew a picture of a robin on the first page – a European robin as opposed to what’s often referred to as an American robin. The teacher said “your writing is getting worse, do this page again”, so I dutifully did that and although the writing might be imperceptibly improved, the drawing of the robin I did was quite dramatically different, and worse than the first one! In fact, the robin looks quite squished flat and dead. So, as I said, my thought process around many things are random and non-linear but it kind of involves the poem “Who Killed the Cock Robin”. I’m showing a reproduction of the actual drawings; more sculptural three-dimensional pieces based on those robins. I guess overall, in the process of conceptualizing the show, this avian theme came through.

Who Killed the Cock Robin work leaning against the gallery wallIt’s really interesting how you are contemplating how these events, at very different times of your life are connected- specifically events that have to do with the physical act of making art.

Yeah, it occurred to me I didn’t put anything in this show that was currently drawn because I’ve reproduced these drawings digitally so they’re manipulated with a computer. But yeah, that was the thought process behind it at least. Then there’s another piece that is a little more sculptural – it’s a mixed media piece made of a car grille, very light aluminum, that I salvaged off a car wreck on the street in my neighbourhood in Vancouver to which I attached raven feathers. I actually used those wings in several dance performances and so that’s a continuation of a contemplation of life and events. The title Hanging Up My Wings relates to knowing when to stop. In the case of the wings, when to stop dancing. But I consciously used the words in my statement “knowing, and choosing, when to stop” which is a reference to the right to choose your time of death – an important issue for me. I know it’s controversial. Many disability advocates are very protective, and rightly so, of the rights of people who don’t have their own voice. But I do in fact have my own voice and I fully intend to exercise what I see as my right to choose when I’ve had enough – not that that’s anytime soon but aging and starting to fall a part in some ways, it’s something I think about.

How would you describe your practice to someone who doesn’t know you?

I identified at quite a young age as an artist. I had gone to art school in Vancouver and was on my way to NSCAD in Nova Scotia when I broke my neck. The process of rehabilitation takes up to a year. Getting resettled in the community was important to me. It was also very important to me to be as independent as I could; I basically have lived alone pretty much all of the time since I broke my neck and when you’re a quadriplegic, that takes up a lot of time. So my artistic career, so called, has kind of suffered from that. I have a deep and abiding love of dance and have actually, since breaking my neck, done some dance creation through Kickstart and with my sister who is quite an accomplished dancer. And I like to sing; I’ve been involved in a couple of choirs. When I applied to NSCAD I was interested in printmaking, lithography particularly, but what I have produced most of in the last few years has been assemblage sculpture, three dimensional stuff made of found objects and quirky things. I love that.

I was going to say, you seem to me, to be a collector.

Yes, if you saw my place you’d know I’m definitely a collector. I keep getting what seem to me great ideas, cause I’ve been collecting all this crap for so many years and talking about actually doing something with it. That brings its own challenges because, for a lot of those projects, I’m not physically able to actually do the physical work of putting the stuff together – like joining it, so that kind of overlays a whole set of issues around time and energy to involve other people and to organize them and the relationships that that activity creates with people. I found it very interesting, enlisting both friends and people I didn’t know in helping me and seeing the degree to which personal aesthetics or artistic egos emerged in the creation process – sometimes very subtle and almost non-existent but it’s an interesting thing. It’s always a challenge when you have to ask for help so much as someone in my position does. I don’t mind having to do that so much, I’m pretty used to it but yeah, it’s just a fact of life that I’m required to do that a lot. I say I don’t mind doing it, but I try not to have that be really imbalanced – like I’m not giving something in return or making it worth a person’s while or at least making it fun somehow. It’s just an interesting process – interpersonally, with people.

Artwork lying on gallery floor during installation of showDo you have more than one assistant?

Yup. A lot of it is fairly mundane activity that really, anyone can do but some of it involves some skill. So yeah, like I’ve got a project in mind that I want to do, that I’m really gonna have to find someone with skills in pouring plastic resin. Apparently when you’re adding the catalyst to the plastic stuff, it generates a lot of heat and if you’re doing a large amount, it has to be in layers and there’s a lot of technical stuff so I figure I better find somebody who has done that and knows what they’re doing. Yeah, if I could physically do it, I might be happy only making assemblages; I really like the end result. But I do, in fact, have visions of things that would be appropriate for two dimensions – mixed media paintings and drawings. It would be nice to not have to depend on anyone else and to just be able to do it.

It’s interesting to think about the idea of dependence in the context of making art cause there are many big artists who don’t ever do their own work. They have other people do it for them so there’s the other side of just being a director and conceptualizer.

Yeah exactly, that’s the thing that went through my mind is thinking about artists like Ai Wei Wei or any number of other big time artists who do that, who don’t actually execute, just conceptualize. Actually, I kind of consider my projects very small scale community art projects ‘cause they do involve other people. And I like to give those people credit too. I guess if you’re Ai Wei Wei and you have thousands of factory workers working for you, you can’t really thank them individually but I think he could do more to acknowledge, I don’t know, maybe he has somewhere at times but I’ve never seen really any acknowledgement from him of the work that they do. I love his stuff, I mean he’s brilliant on the ideas and concepts. As I say, because mine are so small, I actually do give them credit.

As the Executive and Artistic Director of Kickstart for many years, I was presenting everyone else and their dog, and not doing my own work at all. So now finally, in a very later stage of my life, I’m trying to get back to being an artist, and it’s kind of working. I haven’t been doing as much solo work on my own but I think that’s definitely coming, I’ll get there.

Geoff McMurchy developed an appreciation for community arts through an active role in the early years of the Public Dreams Society in Vancouver. In 1998 he became Executive / Artistic Director of Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture, and presented original dance, visual art exhibits, music, theatre as well as the very successful Kickstart Festival. After curating the 2010 edition of the Kickstart Festival in Vancouver, Geoff retired to Victoria, BC where he is pursuing his interests in assemblage and multimedia work.

Geoffrey McMurchy will be giving an artist talk on Friday, April 10 at 2:30pm in the YYZ Gallery, Suite 140.