March 17, 2015 - Murray (2nd person I approached)
I was downtown today, working on a short contract job I’ve started. The work day finished earlier than expected, so I wandered around looking for today’s story. I had drank a lot of water throughout the day, and really needed to find a washroom. Over the years, I’ve developed a liking for the facilities at the Four Season’s Hotel. Clean, odour free, and available. I saw Murray painting in the upper lobby and after availing myself of the gent’s room, I stopped and asked if he would be willing to chat with me. He agreed to chat, telling me that he had heard of my project.
We moved away from his easel and took a seat in the far-too-comfortable couches of the hotel’s lobby. Murray started by telling me that he is invited by the hotel to come in and paint for two occasions, annually.
“I teach children to paint. I’m here now because it’s spring break (a school holiday) and I’m always here for a couple of weeks near Christmas time as well,” he told me.
“I was born in Drumheller, Alberta,” he said, smiling.
“Although when I was about six months old, we moved to Winnipeg (Manitoba). But I was born in Drumheller. I have two older sisters, both of whom have passed away now. I was the youngest of the three children,” he told me.
His father was a baptist minister, and his mother "was a quiet soul,” said Murray.
“My father was a very good minister. He was also a hobby photographer, and later in his life, he went on to pursue his love of photography. He was a better man for that decision. It made him a richer, more satisfied person. That’s not to say that being a minister wasn’t satisfying, it was. Photography enriched his life, at the time he pursued it,” he said.
“I learned from that.”
“I spent twenty-one years in post-secondary education. I never did it to get a job. I simply loved learning. I was an anthropologist. I had gotten scholarships and awards which allowed me to continue with my education. I also worked and provided for my family at the same time,” he said.
“I had done everything I needed to do to get my Doctorate. The only thing I really needed, was to defend my thesis, the bulk of which was written. I had been a hobby painter up until then. I never figured I’d ever paint for a living." Murray was married and had three children.
"One day. I told my wife,” said Murray, stopping to gather his thoughts. His eyes were filling with tears and he took a deep breath before continuing.
“I told my wife that I wanted to purchase an art gallery, and paint. She looked at me and said...”
Again, he sat in his emotion, and a tear ran down his right cheek.
“She looked at me and said ‘I think that’s a wonderful idea!’ Who says that? Most people would react by saying ‘What? After all that education and you’re at this point? Why stop now?’ Not my dear wife. She gave me the key to open a door to my future,” he said, wiping his tears away. They had been married twenty-four years by this time.
Five years ago, Betty, Murray’s wife, was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
“She got progressively worse," he said. As time was getting closer to the end, Betty was at the Langley Memorial Hospital. They were transferring her to the Langley Hospice, which was almost across the street.
"The ambulance attendants wheeled her down to an ambulance, waiting outside the hospital,” said Murray.
After some conversation with the attendants, Murray convinced them to allow him to wheel his wife over to the hospice himself, without the ambulance.
“As we were heading there, Betty took my hand and said ‘Murray, I’m dying and need you to help me.’ I asked her what I could do for her. She told me she wanted to ‘Live my dying well.’ And that’s what she did,” he said. (*Fact Check - see links below.)
"The people at the hospice were incredible. I spent a lot of my time there. All the family did. My wife wrote a letter for every one of our children, the grandchildren, and one for me. She asked me to have her friends come to the hospital to say goodbye,” he said, pausing between sentences.
“The nurses would tell me to spend the night. They’d say ‘Climb up there and lay down next to her. I’m sure she’d love you to hold her.' I’d take her frail body in my arms.”
“We spoke about marriage. She told me she didn’t want any deathbed promises. Betty told me that she wouldn’t ever have remarried because our grandchildren were her everything. But she said I should remarry. She wanted me to. ‘You need to have someone to talk to’ Betty would say to me. I spend a lot of time travelling around giving talks and teaching painting and raising money for various charities. She wanted me to have companionship,” said Murray. Betty passed away two years ago.
Some of the staff from the hotel attended her funeral.
“They took such good care of her. Betty would come and stay with me here, even when she wasn’t well. One night, she was lying awake at two in the morning. She got up, needing to use the restroom. She saw a note that had been slipped under the door of our room. It was from one of the hotel restaurant’s wait staff. Wishing her a good night. He had written it at 1:30am, She cherished that,” said Murray.
We spoke of three guiding principals Murray has in his life.
“The first one is I ‘see slowly’ which allows me to really see what I’m looking at and then paint it in detail. In today’s technological world, we see hundreds of images per day. Everyone's pace is high-speed everything. They’re going so fast they don’t see anything,” he said.
“The second thing is I ‘feel deeply’ by allowing myself to experience what I’m feeling, as I’m in it. I spend four months each year out in the wilderness. So many people say they enjoy the wilderness. But really they’re not experiencing it. Saying you go to drive a snowmobile in the back country isn’t experiencing it, it isn’t in wilderness, it’s on it,” he said. We talked about this at length, with various analogies and relatable situations.
"People have little regard for it because they simply call it wilderness. They need to go in and name the things that are in the wilderness to fully appreciate it all as the wilderness."
“The third thing is I ‘communicate passionately.’ This is about my art, and painting as a way to express what I’m feeling. Where there are no words to communicate that. This is about when I talk about art,” he said. I gave an example of what I understood that to be.
When Murray had told me his wife Betty had passed away, I didn’t say ‘I’m sorry.’ I explained that this was a conscious and intentional decision. I feel that often people say sorry, as a form of metatalk. A ritual of words that don't ring true for me, personally.
“Exactly!” Murray said.
“I’m so glad you said that. I love that you feel that way. People are generally afraid to speak of death and grieving and so they say 'I’m sorry for your loss,' it's a way to acknowledge it. I don’t want people to say they're sorry. I don’t want people to be sorry - they’re not responsible for the grief. I understand why people do it, but I’m so glad that you understand. There are no words to describe how you feel in grieving such a loss. That’s how I 'communicate passionately,' through my painting,” he said.
“My life has been a series of goodbyes. My sisters, my parents, my wife. I’ve found that when I go into the wilderness, and I see slowly, I feel like I’m seeing some things that no one else has seen. I paint the things I see, in detail and I’m feeling deeply, and communicating passionately, through my work. I often feel a sense of relief after working on a painting. It’s a cathartic experience, because I can communicate in a way that is deeper than words. It’s how I feel, at the time,” he told me.
Murray spends a lot of his time raising money for charity, and teaching.
“I’m currently trying to raise (a large sum) for the Langley Hospice. I work with Aboriginal communities, and I teach children painting. I probably make more as an artist than I would have made as a Professor, but that’s not the point. I use what I’ve learned to help others wherever I can,” he said.
I asked Murray what teaching children art looked like.
“Well, children can paint, but the brush is a new tool. They don’t know how much paint to put on the brush. It’s not about colouring within the lines. You have to let them discover it for themselves.” He told me that he had two children come by the hotel for a lesson earlier today.
“I used this painting here as a guide,” he said. He was referring to the painting you can see in the photograph I took (top, centre), with the trees on a horizon, reflected in water.
“I asked one child to paint one half, and the other child to paint the other half. They were brother and sister, so when they take the paintings home, they can connect them to make the one painting. It was a wonderful lesson,” he said, with a large grin on his face.
"I'm seventy years old, and I don't have to work, but I love what I'm doing. I'm a better man for it."
Murray was one of fifty Canadian artists selected for ‘Art for an Oil Free Coast.' It's a campaign to raise awareness and bring attention to our fragile coastline. It highlights the fact that an oil spill from a supertanker would have a catastrophic impact on our coastline.
While we spoke, several people were stopping and looking at Murray's work. A family of three wanted to take a photo with him. One lady asked for his card saying she would be in touch, that his art reminded her of a family friend. Murray told me, somewhat modestly, that he has had people burst into tears when looking at his work.
“And not because it’s so awful either,” he joked.
“I tell my students to learn to paint scents. The smells of a forest, or a mountaintop. The person who cries when looking at art has had a sensory memory triggered. I try whenever possible to ask what it reminded them of, where they were when that memory was formed. Art is very powerful,” said Murray.
His phone had rung a few times while we chatted and Murray graciously let the calls go. He had sat patiently with me for about twenty minutes or so, sharing his story. I thanked him for his time and we shook hands. A firm shake with a soft touch to match his gentle heart. Murray did answer one of the phone calls he received. It was his wife.
“I’m actually on my honeymoon. I got married seventeen days ago.” #notastranger