Pansy Kings performance artist, education advocate, curator, designer and LGBTQ activist Edward Murray McKay died Jan. 4 of cancer. He was 53.
McKay was born Oct. 2, 1968, in Brussels, Belgium. The family moved to Toronto and then Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he spent his early childhood. They then moved to St. Peter, Minnesota, when McKay was 8; he lived there until he went to college.
When Murray was 12, he starred in a production of Oliver at Mancato State University; his performance was highlighted in the Mancato Free Press. Years later, he studied communications at Bradley University before transferring to Indiana's University of Evansville, where he received his bachelor's degree in theater performance. McKay also got his Masters of Fine Arts in interdisciplinary performance art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and trained as an actor at Chautauqua Institute Theatre Conservatory.
While at Bradley, McKay took part in theater productions such as Ted Tally's play Terra Nova, in which he played the villain Roald Amundsen; and Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, as Demetrius.
McKay's academic career included stints in senior leadership enrollment roles at SAIC; Bowling Green State University, in Bowling Green, Ohio; Studio Arts Centers International, in New York City and Florence, Italy; Parsons School of Design at The New School in New York City and Paris; Drexel University's Westphal College of Media Arts and Design, in Philadelphia; and, most recently, at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).
During McKay's 21 years as an education enrollment leader, he was responsible for thousands of students being able to attend the art and design colleges he worked for. This included finding numerous scholarships for students who had no financial resources.
Additionally, McKay was instrumental in opening Parsons School of Design at The New School's Paris campus in 2015. While at MICA, McKay played a vital role during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic in his interim senior leadership position on the president's council. At Drexel, he innovated marketing presentations. He also received over a dozen awards for his achievements.
While living in Chicago, McKay made a name for himself as an actor and performance artist including a stint with the Pansy Kings. McKay started with the Pansy Kings with their second holiday pageant at the now-defunct Live Bait Theater in 1995 as "Dingle Barrie," Santa's favorite drag elf. He also took part in the Pansy Kings first show at Park West in 1996 as the "Cookie Diva" and a reunion performance in 2003 among other appearances with the group.
McKay performed at Millie's Orchid Show playing various characters. He appeared in Shakespeare's The Tempest at Victory Gardens and starred as Norman Bates in Psycho: An American Musical among other roles. McKay also worked for a time on the technical staff of the Blue Man Group Chicago.
Additionally, he worked at the Northalsted eclectic clothing store Flashy Trash, where he expressed himself through his colorful outfits.
He met husband Gregory Downer seven years ago. Downer is an artist and graphic designer, including his longtime stint as the art director of Metropolitan Opera Guild, Inc's Opera News.
Downer said that from the minute they met, there was a strong bond and it was destined that they would be together forever. They got married in October 2020 in what Downer called a "pandemic wedding" with an officiant and one witness: their friend Chris Welles Feder.
McKay was also involved with many organizations, including the NAFSA: Association of International Educators Creative Industries Member Interest Group, where he served as co-chair since 2018; Council of International Schools International Admissions Counselor; National Art Education Association; National Portfolio Day Association; Association of Independent Colleges of Art and Design; Forum on Education Abroad; Arts School Network and College Art Association.
He is survived by Downer, father Dr. John McKay, sisters Johanna and Elizabeth McKay, and countless chosen family members and friends. He was preceded in death by his mother, Sara (Hayden) McKay.
"Murray was and is the light of my life," said Downer. "His infinite kindness, generosity, easy laughter, keen intelligence, compassion and grace will remain with me every day."
"Murray was a luminous light," said longtime friend and former roommate Kristin Amondsen Sassi. "We met in August 1986, his freshman year at Bradley University. He was a magnet: funny, kind, so talented, quirky and mischievous. He was intuitive, articulate, wonderfully polite and hilariously crass when he was feeling wild. Murray made friends wherever he went and loved deeply: children, animals, family and friends.
"Murray was a brilliant creator of whatever he built from the ground up. He was a legendary college roommate, creative genius, and angel who helped others to win multiple individual titles for our speech team. He was my peer coach, loudest cheerleader, collegiate shenanigans partner and was the 'best man' at my wedding. Murray loved costuming and costume parties, sent me wonderful Christmas cards, and left me with so many memories. I feel so very blessed to be his friend. I am so grateful to Murray's loving husband Greg for caring for him in his final days. Murray will forever shine in my heart."
"Murray was like no one else I have ever met," said longtime friend Dave Awl. "He was completely and utterly himself. I first met Murray circa 1986, when we were both on the Bradley University speech team. When I launched the Pansy Kings performance series in 1994, I knew I wanted Murray to be part of it. He eventually joined us for several shows and created the character of Dingle Barrie, Santa's favorite drag elf. Of course he brought the house down.
"Murray had a quality of intense earnestness that was striking. He would tell you just exactly what was on his mind, ready or not. But his sincerity was one of his superpowers in life, I think; it was one of the things you grew to love about him and it served him well as he grew older and more judicious. He was also kind, forgiving and deeply loyal to his friends. I did not get to see much of him in recent years. And like so many of us, I did not get to say goodbye to him in real life, so I will say it here: Murray, you were the best drag elf ever, and a dear friend who will always have a place in the corner booth of my heart."
"Every encounter with Murray was a true joy," said longtime friend Heather Elliott-Famularo. "His laughter and smile were contagious. He had a passion and talent for all art forms. And his design taste was impeccable. Murray told the best stories and he captivated audiences, whether he was giving a recruitment lecture, performing in his wild MFA productions, or simply recounting memories from one of his rousing travel adventures. And he was hilarious. No one could make you laugh more. But most importantly, he was a wonderful friend to so very many people.
"For the past 25 years, he was my best friend, an uncle to my daughters, a colleague and an art partner. We never got to celebrate his marriage to his wonderful husband, Greg, but we were so incredibly happy that he found true love. We are grateful for Greg's passionate care during Murray's trial with cancer and his endless love during that difficult time. I do not know how or when our broken hearts will heal, but I pray that all of Murray's friends and family can grieve peacefully and stay connected so that we can share memories and heal together."
"Murray was one of my dearest friends and family of choice," said longtime friend Rick Anderson. "I met him in 1993, the same year I had lost my partner to the AIDS pandemic, and he literally talked me off the ledge. He was always so kind, polite, funny and enthusiastic. Murray was a key motivation for me to get sober and to accept life on life's terms. He was also a brilliant young Chicago actor and performance artist and so amazing to watch. I was proud of him for pursuing an MFA at School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and for the career in arts administration that followed. My life has been so much richer for having known him. Murray, you were someone rare and special. I will love and remember you always."
Downer is assisting in the process of establishing a scholarship fund in McKay's name to benefit deserving art and design students. For those interested in making donations, visit the Murray McKay Memorial Scholarship at https://forms.gle/ADNNk4ndDPn4dF1V6.