Brogan Joe Murphy was trained classically as a realist oil painter, but his art was put on hold after back surgery complications made him a paraplegic. Now he uses painting as a pain management tool while he completes his life’s work — a portrait of poet Walt Whitman.
#WWWWD? (What Would Walt Whitman Do?)
When Brogan Joe Murphy was first commissioned to paint Walt Whitman, he hated the results. He felt the subject was forced upon him and that making a color painting of a photograph lacked originality. Instead of rehashing someone else’s artistic vision, he wanted to create an original painting of the famous poet.
Then in 2012, at the age of 58, a botched back surgery left Murphy a paraplegic and any painting was put on hold thanks to neuropathic pain. “I couldn’t reach the easel, and it was hard for me to work for a long period,” says Murphy. “Oils don’t dry [quickly], so it was very difficult to work with a painting and hold it in my lap.”
This is the first painting Murphy completed after his injury. He painted it on a sail, as part of a fundraiser for The Impossible Dream catamaran. For more on the Impossible Dream, see “Sailing the Impossible Dream,” May 2018 NM.
Four years later, he was invited to set sail on The Impossible Dream — a 60-foot catamaran that goes up and down the east coast giving people with disabilities the chance to embark on a completely accessible sailboat. The captain of the vessel is also a paraplegic, and he made a request Murphy couldn’t refuse: paint a piece on the boat’s sail to be auctioned off for an Impossible Dream fundraiser.
Time constraints meant oil paints were out of the question, so Murphy swallowed his pride and used acrylics, which reduced drying time from weeks to minutes. This made painting from a wheelchair more doable and allowed him to create other paintings for charity, including for United Spinal Association. But soon, fundraising became secondary.
“What I found is that painting is very similar to meditating in one respect,” says Murphy. “You’re focused on something not in your head. So when I paint, I don’t feel pain. I can literally paint for an hour and feel nothing until I stop to think about it. Pain really is perception.”
Murphy believes that, in the interest of mental health, it’s important to come back to some aspect of who you were before you were injured. It’s advice he gives many newly-injured wheelchair users he mentors on behalf of United Spinal. To that end, he decided to redo that old Walt Whitman painting. At first, it was about honoring the poet’s 200th birthday and creating a painting worthy of The National Portrait Gallery. But as Murphy fell deeper into the research, he started to see uncanny similarities between Whitman’s life and his own. “He was paralyzed on his left side. I have a lot of pain on my left side. But imagine what it’s like to be paralyzed in the 1800s,” says Murphy. “During the Civil War, Whitman became a nurse. He would visit with patients, impart his wisdom and write letters to loved ones for them.”
Not only did he see parallels to Whitman’s life in his age, injury and peer-mentoring practice, but Murphy started looking like him — growing his hair and beard out until he became the spitting image of Whitman himself. He says he cultivated this look in order to get the light right on Whitman’s face in the painting.
Meanwhile, after 13 months on his easel, the new painting, now called “Walt Whitman in Camden,” is almost complete. And, in what became a century-spanning spiritual commune between subject and artist, Whitman taught Murphy to see life and all its setbacks in a new way.
“It’s a beautiful day in Boston today,” says Murphy. “I look at the colors, I smell the wind, and I realize these are the things Walt Whitman would be doing as a matter of course — embracing every ounce of life joyfully. I think no matter what you’re dealing with, that’s a really great lesson to learn.”
Not Another Average Joe
Brogan Joe Murphy explains the unique history of his name.
“Here’s the problem. When I was in California and started to paint, in the town I was living in, there were 13 Joe Murphys, and two on the same street. I knew if I was going to paint under a name, I needed one people would remember. My great grandmother’s name was Jenny Brogan. She came over on a boat at 7 years old from Ireland and married a guy named Peter Murphy. I thought, I’ll just use both names. I’ll use Brogan and Murphy. Everyone just calls me Joe anyway, and Brogan Joseph Murphy seemed pretentious to me, so I shortened it to Brogan Joe Murphy and just stuck with it.
“My real full name is Joseph Edward Murphy, but when I was in the hospital there was another guy on the floor with the exact same name as me. It was like, ‘Oh my God!’ The Irish were so limited with their options. If you were born Irish, you were named after saints.”
Can’t Live Without:
My wife, probably, but also joy — you need to find joy in your life.
I learned you’re still the same person after SCI. You just have to learn new ways to use the resources at your disposal.
SCI Parenting: Harder of Easier?:
Some things are harder, like travel, but it’s not particularly harder. My kids worry more about me than they should though.
Why I Joined United Spinal:
An SCI is a sudden shock for anyone, and people need to know it’s going to be OK. I needed to know that. Once you hear that and meet people who inspire you, it helps you inspire yourself.
** This post was originally published on https://www.newmobility.com/2020/05/artist-brogan-joe-murphy/