Fate handed Geoff McMurchy a heavy basket of lemons, but it failed to sour his spirit. A quadriplegic artist, choreographer, dancer and arts administrator, he pursued his creative endeavours with seriousness of purpose, while helping to create opportunities for other disabled artists to do the same. He fought against the perception that art made by disabled people is of lesser value, to be judged by lower standards.
Mr. McMurchy came along at a time when the disability movement was gaining strength, demanding (and getting) curb ramps and wheelchair access to all public places. He harnessed the momentum of the movement to nurture the cultural flowering of the disabled community, which also touched and educated the wider public.
As founding director of Vancouver's Kickstart (formerly the Society for Disability Arts and Culture), he produced in 2001 Canada's first festival for disabled creators in all disciplines. Sixty international and 160 Canadian artists exhibited or performed their works at the event, which helped artists with disabilities to make connections and was an eye-opener for able-bodied visitors.
Mr. McMurchy organized four more such festivals before 2013, when he handed over the reins to Kickstart's current artistic director Emma Kivisild, a writer and visual artist who has multiple sclerosis.
"Artists with disabilities came from Australia, England, the United States," Ms. Kivisild recalled. "'Authentic, non-sentimental expression of the disability experience' – it's how Geoff defined the purpose of Kickstart. He wanted people with disabilities to have the option of choosing the arts as a life path."
His unforgettable dance performances, created with his dancer sister, Shannon McMurchy, and later with choreographer Lori Hamar, were seen in Vancouver and Victoria as well as at the High Beam Festival in Adelaide, Australia. Audiences were sometimes moved to tears watching Mr. McMurchy whirling in his wheelchair, his arms pushed through feather-tipped silver wings that he had created out of the discarded grille of a car.
In 2012, he also spearheaded a Vancouver disabilities film event, the Wide Angle Media festival. His art assemblages were exhibited in Vancouver's Roundhouse arts centre and, most recently, at Toronto's YYZ Gallery.
Mr. McMurchy died on July 19 in hospital in Victoria, of an abdominal cancer, at the age of 59. He had spent his adult life in a motorized wheelchair after suffering a broken neck at 21. His older brother, Gregg McMurchy, said the cancer symptoms had gone unrecognized because of his quadriplegia.
Geoffrey McMurchy was born in Lamont, Alta., on Sept. 19, 1955, the third of four children of Ken and Nancy (née Alton) McMurchy. The family lived in Edmonton but his maternal grandfather, a doctor, had been mayor of Lamont and his mother returned there to give birth.
His father was a professor in the dentistry school at the University of Alberta and when Geoff was 7, Dr. McMurchy took his family with him on sabbatical in England. Geoff's mother saved the drawings of birds he did while there and he later incorporated them into his mature artwork, when he no longer had the dexterity to draw.
Proud of their Scottish roots, the family enjoyed Scottish dancing, at which Geoff excelled. "He was always painting, or taking courses. He was a highland dancer and took tap dancing," said brother, Gregg. "He also played tenor banjo and sang in the Edmonton boys' choir."
Paula Jardine, who became his close friend at Edmonton's Garneau High School and played a crucial role in his life, recalled the teenaged Geoff: "He was the most beautiful, tall, lanky guy and a really good artist. Everybody loved him. Our little group all felt like misfits so we hung out in the art room. We had an experimental theatre group and did improv in the hall."
After graduation, the "misfits" moved to Vancouver, with Ms. Jardine eventually going to Toronto to apprentice at Theatre Passe Muraille. Mr. McMurchy took classes in drawing and print making, before being accepted at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design.
While driving across the country to Halifax, full of promise and hope, he stopped to visit his parents in Edmonton. A friend suggested they go to Lake Wabamun, 60 kilometres from the city, to cool off. There, on July 27, 1977, he fractured his cervical vertebrae in a dive from a pier into water that was much shallower than it appeared. He remained conscious and later recalled the sensation of seeing his arms floating in the water without feeling them.
In traction and with a "halo" bolted to his head, he spent nearly nine months in an Edmonton hospital. Brother, Gregg, remembered seeing him in bed using a paint brush in his mouth, adding: "Within days, a cadre of his friends landed in his hospital room. They were there constantly and helped him deal with it."
Ms. Jardine hitchhiked from Toronto and never went back. "He was questioning whether he was meant to die," she recalled. But according to his brother, "with his friends there to support him, he remained largely positive. He could lift his arms but had no strength in his hands."
He returned to Vancouver to attend the renowned G.F. Strong Rehabilitation Centre where he learned to wash, feed and dress himself. "He had a lot of little appliances for everyday things – he had this remarkable ability to cope," Gregg said. "Once he had his motorized wheelchair, he never looked back."
He realized that he was gay and found a partner in George Landrecht when the latter showed up to make changes to his apartment in supportive housing. They lived together for a time, went camping, travelled. "Geoff collected all kinds of rusty metal and he was fascinated with crows and feathers," Mr. Landrecht said. "I went with him to junkyards and scrap heaps. He made a sort of mobile from a bicycle wheel and broken light bulbs."
Mr. Landrecht had his car adapted for hand controls but Mr. McMurchy did not feel he had the strength to drive safely. Although their romance ended, Mr. Landbrecht continued to be helpful as a travelling companion and occasional studio assistant.
In 1998, Mr. McMurchy was the communications officer for the B.C. Coalition of People with Disabilities when he was approached by filmmaker Bonnie Sherr Klein (Not a Love Story) with an audacious project. Ms. Klein, who had suffered a debilitating stroke and got around on a scooter, was part of a group of disabled creative people who saw a need for an arts festival in Vancouver for people like them.
"Geoff was very interesting because he was both an artist through and through, and a political activist," Ms. Klein said. The next year, they formed a non-profit society with Mr. McMurchy as artistic director, and began raising money. "We went to the Canada Council and the B.C. Arts Council for money and they said, 'What? A disability festival! We never heard of that,'" she said.
Mr. McMurchy and his sister Shannon had seen CanDoCo, the revolutionary mixed-abilities British dance troupe founded in 1991 that was touring North America; according to Shannon, it gave them a new sense of possibilities. They performed their dance creation Wingspan (which was to have several iterations) at a big fundraiser for the festival, at the Roundhouse in Vancouver. The money started to flow, and Mr. McMurchy and Ms. Klein travelled to Australia to scout talent to bring in.
The first Kickstart festival in 2001, and its four successors, encouraged disabled artists and changed attitudes. Ms. Klein made a cheeky film for the National Film Board about five disabled artists titled Shameless, in which Mr. McMurchy figured prominently.
The Canada Council for the Arts began to include Mr. McMurchy on its peer juries and in 2009 asked him to co-author a report about disability artists in Canada and the type of support they needed.
"I knew Geoff before he started the festival and saw him become a distinguished person," said friend Peter Field, another artist. "I was so impressed with his drive – the vision to see that there was good modern art made by people with disabilities."
In 2004, Mr. McMurchy moved to Victoria to be closer to his mother. He was predeceased by his parents and an older sister, Laurie. He leaves his sister, Shannon McMurchy of San Francisco, brother, Gregg McMurchy of Edmonton, and many friends.
In Victoria, he lived in the spacious home of Ms. Jardine and her husband, musician Calvin Cairns. A ground-level apartment with French doors opening to a garden was modified for his needs so that he could be self-sufficient. When his work required, he commuted by ferry to Vancouver – an exhausting process.
"He was the artistic director of our garden. The flower beds were raised and he could do some digging and planting and watering himself," Ms. Jardine said. "The guy had an eye – a beautiful aesthetic. We left his suite intact. It's an artwork in itself."