March 3, 1966 – April 26, 2014
Phil Durgan, an artist, playwright and chef who made a deep impression on the city’s arts community during six short years in Buffalo, died unexpectedly April 26, according to his ex-wife, Crystal Durgan. He was 47.
Mr. Durgan moved to Buffalo from his native San Diego, where he worked as an auto mechanic, in 2008. He quickly inserted himself into Western New York’s tight-knit arts community, first as a playwright and later as a prolific painter and constant presence at art openings and cultural events.
He was a fixture at the Sweetness 7 Café on Grant Street, where he made an art out of chatting up the clientele and gathering ideas that would sometimes appear later in his vibrant canvases. For the past several months, he worked at Spot Coffee’s locations on Delaware Avenue and Elmwood Avenue.
Mr. Durgan, with tattoos on his neck and both arms and almost always sporting a brown fedora and Chuck Taylors, had a casual, West Coast flair that instantly piqued the curiosity of customers and fellow artists. His friends remembered him as a generous and curious man with a passion for creativity and an infectious enthusiasm for subjects as diverse as food and jazz.
“When I think of him, I just think of a spark,” said Crystal Durgan. “He could just engage anyone in conversation. He could speak on any topic. He had a brilliant mind. I’d say that he was somewhere between genius and madness. And people really found that fascinating.”
Megan Callahan, an actor and director who met Mr. Durgan shortly after his arrival in Buffalo and directed a staged reading of his plays “Pound for Pound” and “Jimmy Champagne” at the Road Less Traveled Theatre, described him as constantly on the hunt for creative fodder.
“The best artists that we know about through history are people like Phil, people who you can tell that their artwork is directly fed and influenced with the connections they have to people day to day,” Callahan said.
Mr. Durgan’s paintings often incorporated jazz musicians against riotous backgrounds of letters and abstract blocks of paint. They were as improvisational as jazz, and, like the work of Michel Basquiat – Mr. Durgan’s Twitter handle was @basquiatkase – seemed to capture the messy rhythms of the city.
Often, Callahan said, he would paint over old work instead of starting anew because the urge to project his creativity was so great.
“He felt the need to experiment. He’d put on his jazz music, some Charles Mingus or Dizzy Gillespie, and he would just paint like mad,” Crystal Durgan said. “That was his catharsis. That’s the way he really expressed what he was feeling.”
Mr. Durgan is survived by his two children, Mika and Rhett; his ex-wife, Crystal Durgan; two sisters, Monique Worthey and Debbie Collins; and his fianceé, Evelyn Wack.
According to Crystal Durgan, his ashes will be scattered in one of his favorite places, the Anza-Borrego Desert in Southern California.
Mr. Durgan’s friends and family are planning a celebration of his life and work, including live jazz, the music he loved, from 4 to 7 p.m. May 18 in Asbury Hall in Babeville.
– Colin Dabkowski