Hampton High School Human Rights Mural by Glenn Hall
John Murphy was my teacher, coworker, friend and fellow artist. He died suddenly and unexpectedly on a Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 15th, 2009. In the mid 1990s, John Murphy had travelled to South Africa to visit his daughter. His experiences there had a profound effect on the final 15 years of his life. A tour of a children’s AIDS hospital was a particularly moving experience for John. Upon his return he wrote:
”…my tour in South Africa… taught me that I need a plan. The kind of plan I need to put into place includes responsibilities I have come to recognize as my own that exist outside of my family and my working life. They stretch beyond my community and reach out across continents and across cultures to people whose needs are desperate.”
Upon his return, John embarked on a number of human rights projects. His vision, in part, was to associate the town of Hampton with one of its most important and influential natives: John Peters Humphrey. Humphrey’s declaration of Human Rights, presented to the UN in 1948 would become John’s guiding beacon in a number of projects. He worked tirelessly to fundraise for ambitious works of art that would celebrate the life and work of Humphrey, all the while maintaining side projects with Amnesty International.
I could fill pages with John’s accomplishments as an artist, musician, actor and activist, but I wish to focus on his last vision – a very ambitious wall mural that was unveiled in early December. The mural is a celebration of article 26 in the Human Rights Declaration: Everyone has the Right to an Education. It would be 25′ x 40′ and would be realized on a series of huge inter-locking panels. It would become somewhat a marriage of sculpture and painting, operating on several different relief levels.
It would also be as colourful as it was ambitious, depicting, among other things, young people coming together to learn and share knowledge. John Murphy spent his final summer organizing local artists in a semi-annual fundraising festival known as Bloomin Artists. Then he recruited Fred Harrison, a well known and respected mural artist to oversee the operation. Next he invited Jim Boyd and myself to dinner, and somewhere between the main course and desert he rolled out his latest plan. I was floored at how beautiful the preparatory sketches for this thing were. John wanted us to round up talented and interested students to work communally with us to realize the mural. As adults, we were sort of loosely in charge, but the thing had a very A. S. Neill Summerhill vibe about it – everyone respecting everyone’s space and personal offerings. No one really was in charge although we would defer to Fred whenever doubts about the direction of the mural surfaced. Fred, as it turned out, would be the most kind and benevolent boss anyone of us would ever encounter. The last time I saw John we were working on the mural on the Theatre floor. John was busy cutting out by Glenn Hall, Hampton High School.
There was always goodnatured teasing with John. The next day he was gone. We were all in shock. I mean, it was literally day two or three and the unthinkable had happened. John had left us. It felt like some kind of terrible mistake had been made. I would paint and cry…and then paint some more. Fred designed a panel and told me to go away and paint John. “It could be a dove” he said. But I’m a pretty conservative person really, so I painted a literal portrait of John. This was how I grieved. In the end the portrait was inserted in the middle of the original design – the mural was completed and we all emerged in tact, but changed people. It was bolted to the outside wall of our school’s theatre and we had a public unveiling on Dec. 10th, 2009. Our Lieutenant Governor, Graydon Nicholas, spoke beautifully at the unveiling and I eulogized John Murphy before the staff, students, dignitaries and his family. In some ways, it represented closure for us.
We are left to carry John Murphy’s torch and understand that a most extraordinary man has passed through our lives, touching us all. I will be forever grateful having experienced him.