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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v13n20 (05/15/2014) » Art Feature: In Memoriam

Good Night, Art Star: Phil Durgan (1966 - 2014)

Phil Durgan was an artist and playwright, an habitué of cafes and kitchens both as customer and cook, a native of San Diego who made an immediate and indelible impression on this city’s cultural scene upon moving here from San Diego in 2008.

Durgan died unexpectedly on April 26, leaving behind two children, Mika and Rhett, as well as an ex-wife, Crystal Durgan, and a fianceé, Evelyn Wack. He is also survived by two sisters, Monique Worthey and Debbie Collins.

A Celebration of the Life and Work of Phil Durgan

Sunday, May 18, 4-7pm

Asbury Hall, Babeville

Hosted by Buffalo actor Dave Lundy, a night of art and music in remembrance of the late artist and playwright.

There will be a celebration of Durgan’s life and work this Sunday, May 18, 4-7pm, at Babeville. Durgan’s artwork will be exhibited and music will be provided by a lineup of friends and admirers: George Caldwell, Mari and Michael McNeill, Kevin Doyle & Why Not?, Steve Baczkowski, the Rearview Ramblers with Kate Panfil and Andrew Reimers, and Bourbon & Coffee. Proceeds from the sale of t-shirts and other items will benefit Durgan’s children.

We asked some of Durgan’s friends to remember him:

MEGAN CALLAHAN, actor, artist, musician: Somewhere along the way, early in our years of collaborating over plays, music, painting, community efforts, him fixing my car in a pinch (multiple times), Phil started calling me “Nutmeg.” He and I first met six years ago when I directed a staged reading of his play, Pound for Pound. In one of our very first exchanges, I could already sense the Kerouac-esque sensibility of his soul as we bantered back and forth about road trips and wanderlust. His plays, both Pound for Pound and Jimmy Champagne, are beautifully written, each filled with timeless and poignant atmospheres of loneliness, longing, and humanity. I fell in love with his characters and the jazz sensibility of the worlds he created. Our friendship was born out of poring over the pages of his script and I felt honored to be witnessing the birth of a tremendous playwright. And I remember the day he then told me he was going to paint instead, and although happy he had found something he was so passionate about, I was saddened he’d given up the written word- until I saw his first painting and I knew something equally tremendous was underway.

But his greatest work of art by far was his children. When I grew excited to learn I’d be having my first child, I looked to Phil as the ultimate parent, one worth aspiring to, with his beautiful balance of artistry, play, service, and parenthood. You will continue to inspire me friend for all the days ahead.

Signed, Nutmeg.

SARA ZAK, artist: Phil mentioned in an interview with ELAB that he liked to read artists’ bios, including those of Basquiat, Pollock, De Kooning, Picasso. One can see the conversation his work has with these artists on canvas, as well as with other artists he admired, including Jean Dubuffet, Cy Twombly, Joseph Beuys. His material usage is often identical to Basquiat—acrylic paint and oil sticks. Basquiat said that every line had meaning—this is true of Phil’s work. I certainly don’t know the meanings, but you can feel their purpose.

JEFF WILBER, writer:

We used to talk.

We used to talk about stuff.

We used to talk about Mexican food and Cali.

We used to talk about jazz and Boyd and the Blues.

We used to talk about chicks and coffee and Kerouac.

We used to talk.

MATTHEW CRANE, artist and musician: Phil Durgan was not a traditional kind of guy. One time, he had a punk band play one of his art openings at Allen Street Hardware in the small back room. The walls were all brick and it was dark, loud, and chaotic. Not something you’d normally experience at a fine art reception. When I arrived, I asked Phil how it was going so far. He said, “Good,” with a little hesitation and little disappointed. He continued, “A lot of these art people aren’t really digging the music.” I laughed and agreed that it was a bit out of the ordinary, but that it didn’t matter—the paintings were awesome and it was a great party. Phil continued to explain that he didn’t feel comfortable with the quiet, well-lit, wine-and-cheese openings we’re all used to. He wanted his openings to be a party, a celebration. You never felt like an outsider at his shows. He really made himself and his work accessible to everyone, not just art world elitist types. He was a painter of the people.

JAMIE DOKTOR, burlesque artist and coworker: How can I choose one memory out of all that involve Phil Durgan to be the fondest? Not possible. I can tell you each day I think of something else. And with each memory I get this huge smile on my face.

I remember the first time I met him. There he was at Sweetness 7. I had taken my little boy out for pancakes. He, being a proud dad of a little boy the same age, was instantly drawn to us, striking up conversation about recently relocating and how he was glad to meet other parents and kids. I remember seeing him and Evelyn at a red light. We just waved and smiled with so much joy because we were so glad to just see each other randomly. I really loved the picture he sent me from New York City of my drag queen doppelganger one night. There were times when I swear he could read my mind and just call or show up exactly when I needed him. He did that all the time. That was what I loved the most. That’s what I’m going to miss the most. I know that I am going to miss him. My heart is going to hurt. My memories are going to flood my mind. I also know that I am a better person for knowing Phil. I am a better person for loving Phil. That will always be.

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