John B. Murray
John Bunion (“J.B.”) Murray (often spelled “Murry”) was born in 1908 in a remote community in Glascock County in central Georgia. Tenant farming was his only known occupation. He was in his fifties when his wife left him. She had borne eleven children, but they too were gone by that time, leaving Murray alone in a small shack on barely arable land, in virtual isolation in one of the most remote sections of Georgia. Sometime later, in the late 1970s, Murray began what would become one of the most remarkable and unlikely art “careers” in the southern vernacular field.
Murray suffered from hallucinations, and that affliction (which later caused him to be institutionalized briefly) may have been the impetus for his earliest creations. He distrusted people who did not believe in God; he believed that most people had strayed from the Lord’s path and were thus potentially harmful. He also believed that evil spirits inhabited his world and that, like living beings, they had a propensity for destructiveness. To that end Murray set out to fashion a series of protective devices, literally a defense system, to shield himself from ever-present dangers.
His first works were probably the small mysterious piles of rocks and stones, concrete blocks, and other found materials (one pile included an old toilet bowl and empty beer cans) that Murray built around his house. While these constructions appear highly idiosyncratic, they closely resemble similar small structures (not necessarily rural and not always African American) found in yards across the South. Murray declined to discuss their significance, yet their purposes seem to be protective and (additionally) related to burial traditions, because purposeful stacks of rocks are also often used as grave markers in African American cemeteries throughout the region. In a formal sense, Murray’s piles of rocks anticipate some of his later protective drawings’ and paintings’ compartmentalized combinations of rectangular and rounded forms with vertical and horizontal elements. Similar sculptures were part of the yard architectures of Eldren M. Bailey, Dilmus Hall, and Ralph Griffin (African American artists who, along with Murray, lived in the northern half of the state of Georgia), as well as Howard Finster (of the same region but not African American). Like Murray, each was unwilling to reveal his intention in building the sculptures, sometimes apparently out of fear of being perceived to be engaged in supernatural or superstitious practices. Many African American artists express apprehension, distaste, or resentment at being branded with such pejorative terms as “hoodoo” or “voodoo," not only by misinformed white observers but by members of their African American communities.
Perhaps the most pervasive artistic tradition—and certainly the most visible among African Americans in the South is that of the “yard show.” Produced by both women and men, in both rural and urban areas, these displays serve many purposes, depending upon the artist’s’ goals and needs. There can be no definitive explanation of a yard show, as each artist in his or her way processes traditions, information, and influences. Each display serves variously to communicate, protect, entertain, and beautify, through the careful placement of found man-made objects, natural forms, and works of art generally made by the creator of the environment. The public nature of a yard show—no matter how disguised the symbolism, no matter how concealed the intent—dictates that their originators possess unusual self-confidence. This applies to the foremost documented builders of yard shows: Nellie Mae Rowe, David Butler, Eldren M. Bailey, Joe Light, Mary T. Smith, Lonnie Holley, and Charlie Lucas. The yard shows of the South are repositories for some of the most highly sophisticated, inventive, and (regrettably) overlooked and misunderstood symbolic and philosophical art in the short but intense history of American artmaking.
J.B. Murray was, at least in his later years, not a gregarious man, not the prototypical yard show originator. His barren piece of property, comprising one lonely building, a well, and a few outpost piles of rocks and debris, seems hardly to qualify as a yard show alongside Mary T. Smith’s neatly manicured outdoor museum or Lonnie Holley’s Disney World for the mind. But the impulses that compel a person to control or to manipulate the environment were present in Murray. He put together, in concept if not in conventional form, and unusual interior yard show, which began on the front porch of his home and worked its way inward.
Murray’s use of colors constituted a consistent, codified system that applied to his entire body of earlier work and to most of the later pieces. Three primary colors—yellow, blue, and red—had specific symbolic duties: red represented torment or evil—evil people, evil spirits, evil forces; conversely, blue represented positive strength or good; yellow indicted a divine presence, an energy emanating from or embodied in the sun. White (often) and black (occasionally) were added to his three basic colors. White connoted a spiritual purity related to death or the afterlife. White as a representation of otherworldliness is traditional in many places—as close to Murray as the white tombstones in a nearby graveyard and as far away as ritual funerary sculpture in Nigeria and Congo, two areas that were principal sources of African brought to the South Georgia coast. (The rock/concrete/porcelain assemblages in Murray’s yard consist of white components symbolizing perhaps the positive, and by extension supportive, nature of the ancestors.) Black, when introduced into, onto and around white, blue and yellow forms, denotes imperfection or impurity—a transitional state between the thoroughly opposed red and blue energies. When Murray was later supplied with paper and pigments that did not conform to his system of colors, he introduced them into his code, locating the closest, readiest substitute for each elemental color. When the combinations available to him seemed too distantly removed from his zymology, he strayed from his schematic narratives and created abstractions, some of them neatly ordered, most of them heavy with calligraphic notation.
Murray had little formal education. He probably never learned to read or write. After a vision in 1978, he created his own style of cursive writing with which he inscribed many of his drawings and paintings. Murray’s writing gave him a power he believed could be used for the benediction and protection of himself and others. The inscriptions seem to have had specific meanings to him when he wrote them. There are some consistencies in his script, including a core group of marks, and at some future time perhaps it will be deciphered to some degree. It is entirely possible that Murray could read some or all of his own “writing.” He kept a bottle what he called “holy water” on a table beside his bed, and raised it skyward when praying in the presence of others. During the last few years of his life, when Murray was being described in some circles as a “mystic,” he received a number of visitors who requested ritual “readings” of the water. Murray accommodated them.
Murray’s first paintings were executed on found objects and placed throughout his house’s interior and exterior walls. The choice of materials was not arbitrary. Each object was selected because of some symbolic significance or meaning—sometimes obvious, sometimes esoteric—that it held for Murray. Among the earliest extant examples are two protective devices that were placed in the house as a complement to the rock piles that formed a sort of perimeter defense. The two pieces, a painted television set and an old automobile windshield, are very similar. Both the windshield and the television screen are glass, a material penetrable by light rays, by sounds, and presumably by malevolent energy. Both pieces are vulnerable to such evil. On its reverse side, the television set is covered with meandering red lines that look as if they are attempting to crawl through a vent leading to or from the interior of the box. Across the top is an inscription in red, a warning or perhaps a curse.
The windshield has a similar red inscription, this one surrounding the painted surface. By painting the entire glass area of both objects with vertical forms (guardian figures, both human and spiritual) in blue and white, buttressed by yellow, Murray ensured that the threats could be repelled.
A related piece from the same period (around 1980) is an enameled stovetop whose surface is painted in a style similar to the paintings on the television set and the windshield. Murray had a special fascination with stovetops, and painted several of them. Perhaps it was their association with heat and energy that made them an appropriate subject for him, or perhaps their combination of geometric elements appealed to Murray’s vocabulary of forms. The stovetop is another in his series of occluded portals, but with clear additional implications. As with the other shields, blue guardian forms supported by a divine yellow energy field cover the solid surface. But the stovetop has inherent weaknesses–four circular burner openings–through which evil can enter. Murray fastened a piece of plywood across the back of the object, blocking the openings but failing to close them tightly enough to make them secure. Murray drew attention to this flaw by smearing red in and around two of the holes. The device has failed. Exercise more diligence in defending against threatening forces, Murray seems to have been reminding himself. Over and over, using a wide variety of objects, Murray reenacted his ritual. He understood that evil cannot be stopped, but each reenactment is reinforcement.
Two television picture tubes, also from this period, are prototypes for many of Murray’s later works on paper. The picture tubes are allegorical narratives, with forces of good and evil battling for control, locked in a dramatic stalemate.
Three other pieces depict similar conflicts. One is painted on an asbestos panel, a material that inhibits fire.
The other two, a matching pair, are painted on broken wall panels. The latter pair represents one of the first known examples of Murray’s use of eyes and definite human faces in a painting.
Creators of yard shows almost always define their space with a perimeter boundary, a fence or hedge filled with symbolic configurations, signs, or paintings. Murray’s private space—his interior yard show—was defined by the walls of his house. The asbestos and wall panels thus were supplemental protective walls. The panels contain classic Murray allegories: blue and red in conflict on a ground of yellow, punctuated with black. The asbestos panel has an anatomical look and, like many of Murray’s later works, may have been influenced by a physical examination Murray had and his seeing X-rays and medical charts.
In the early 1980s, Murray started visiting his doctor, William Rawlings, on a regular basis and gave Rawlings some of his writings, most of which were stories about himself and events in his life, accompanied by small blots of color serving as illustration. Murray considered Rawlings his messenger to the outside world. Murray believed himself to be a priest or healer possessing a vision through which God empowered him with special talent. His earliest works on paper had consisted of painted designs and inscriptions on relatively small scraps of found paper, which Murray nailed to both the outside and the inside of his house. He also sealed some of these papers in envelopes and gave them to friends and acquaintances at church. The story goes that his preacher asked Murray to put an end to the practice because it frightened some members of the congregations. These works may have been protective charms—cryptic designs with prayers and incantations—or they may have been rudimentary versions of the more complicated late narratives. (The recalcitrance of his own church and pastor indicates the continuing uneasiness with the African American community about many of these prophesy traditions.)
Just as he devised writings, Murray simultaneously developed a highly personal and unusual artistic vocabulary. He lived in an allegorical world, which he studied, recorded, and believed he could influence. His artworks are morality plays, but with a difference: Murray believed that each work was imbued with a spiritual or psychological power. Whether portraying human beings, forces of the spirit world, or the interior workings of the human body, Murray was concerned with conflict between oppositional forces. Most of his works seem to conform to that basic narrative.
Murray’s inclination was to work abstractly. In the early 1980s, Murray was diagnosed with prostate cancer, the condition that ultimately took his life. About that time, the epic battles that dominate his art began to incorporate iconography premised upon cells and biological disease. The abstract, amoebic forms already present in his work, and the energies or spirits they represented, assumed additional identities as healthy cells in combat with invading toxic ones. Medical and theological imperatives coalesced.
Murray’s first large-format, fully developed works on paper (eighteen-by-twenty-four inches, sometimes larger) were executed with art supplies provided by Dr. Rawlings. For unknown reasons, Murray sometimes attempted to portray what were, for him, “genre” subjects, in a style that, although still relatively abstract, included many recognizable forms. Regardless of subject matter, Murray’s allegorical/narrative intentionality always took precedence. Three pieces from 1980 or 1981 demonstrate this aspect of his work.
The first appears to be a family portrait inside a house, with Murray in the center, his wife on the right, and their eleven children arranged throughout the drawing. The roof is yellow (i.e., God blesses this house), but the house is filled with conflict (red/blue) and impurity (black). Murray’s wife is red and black with touches of blue—Murray does not have a favorable opinion of her but acknowledges that she had good qualities. The children—each has a distinct personality and character, a separate mix of the five “charged” colors—are portrayed in color combinations indicating that the artist’s attitude toward them ranged from very positive to very negative. Murray colors himself and one of the children entirely blue. Another figure, possibly a favored child who died, is blue and white, while still another child is almost all red—certainly not the apple of Murray’s eye. (About this same time Murray created a last will and testament that he gave to Dr. Rawlings. It is filled with both red and blue figures, and no doubt in the accompanying script Murray explains why he wants some of his children to be rewarded more than others.)
A small sheet of red construction paper, among the first colored paper provided to Murray, induced him to conceive a highly atypical and perhaps unique narrative. Unable to use red pigment (because of the color of the paper) to denote malevolent forces, but compelled to pit good against evil, Murray used his two otherworldly colors, black and white, in a literal sense to create a face-to-face confrontation between what probably are African Americans and Ku Klux Klansmen. (The Klan had been an active threat to blacks in central Georgia during Murray’s lifetime.) A small cross, circumferential patches of yellow, and a vertical arrangement of blue dots all serve to provide protection for the endangered black figures.
The third piece resulted from Murray’s being supplied with an expanded range of colors (including purple, orange, brown, and green). He produced a remarkable landscape with a variety of trees and flora, a Murray “Garden of Eden,” with good and bad, original sin and spirituality, the presence of God, man, and the Devil: the world as Murray experienced it.
A large early work on paper appears concerned with the threat to Murray’s physical body portended by a medical diagnosis, and is perhaps a warning about the dangers of prostate cancer. On the right are the invaded parts of the body—intestines and glands. The left side identifies still-healthy areas—genitals and perhaps bones. The entire work is adorned with positive colors and heavily inscribed with writing and crosses. On the reverse side is one of Murray’s most elaborate calligraphic “explanations” of a piece. He had fashioned a complex diagram of a malaise and a method for effecting healing of it or additional protection from it.
Though Murray’s inscriptions are often partitioned from the rest of the drama, and in many cases seem to annotate the action in a way similar to the “glosses” of Medieval manuscripts, the scripts often take part directly in the struggles of the work. Sometimes his scripts align themselves into what seem like ramparts or minefields; at other moments, as soldiers they descend to the field of battle, metaphorical swords in hands, to join with and become forces of good. When assuming such roles, the scripts demonstrate for the extent to which Murray attributed literal, medicinal powers to them.
From careful attention paid to medical charts and publications used by doctors to explain Murray’s afflictions to him, Murray developed an interest in human anatomy. In one work he discloses an attack of cancerous cells upon uninfected ones; cancer has contaminated the healthy area. Cancerous cells are outlined in red. The drawing is on blue paper—the underlying body was sound. Yellow, a divine presence, shows through. Murray executed a number of similar drawings, explaining that they represented “the dead coming out of the ground and good spirits rising up.”
Another cancer-related work includes all of the earlier five-color-encoded features, drafted on a piece of pink paper. The color pink seems to have emerged as a symbol for danger or illness in Murray’s work at this time. Typical Murray improvisational arrangements of form, line, and color are interrupted by a protruding creature (in the lower-right quadrant): a growth, a malignant tumor, gland or organ, or anthropomorphic praise figure. At the top of the drawing is a row of small human forms, blue with yellow and black. These are possibly people on whom Murray is counting to help him in his battle with cancer: good but not perfect people, people on the side of God (perhaps his doctor, nurse, preacher, family, and friends). Murray, it appears, depicted neither heaven nor a Supreme Being in his art, but was instead more concerned with earthbound activities and the unseen world containing them.
Murray may have been aware of a physical ailment before the official diagnosis of prostate cancer. At some point in the mid 1980s the external battle between good and evil, shows in most of his earlier work, became more focused on the internal battle between his body and disease. The later pieces were more carefully drawn; no longer were they notations (messages and prophesies) accompanied by brush strokes and splattered pigments. Murray’s increased exposure to precise medical charts and illustrations must have had some effect on that change in his style. Also, the realization that his life was concluding removed much of the spontaneity and free-form abstraction from the work. They are no longer exclusively autobiographical and narrative; they assume a biological and homeopathic aspect.
In the early 1980s, Murray produced an amazing anatomical drawing that is literally an antiabortion poster (Ladies, Don't Kill Your Babies). Fallopian tubes and embryos are drawn in blue and washed with pink; innocent beings are in danger. Murray said, “this is telling ladies not to kill they babies before they born.” Minimal red calligraphic symbols spell out the message.
Pink paper, a red figure, and black designs indicate trouble in store for Murray. Lines of pink dots represent a necklace worn by a woman who, according to Murray, “turned [Murray] in to the FBI.” In this painting (Trouble-Making Ladies) Murray identifies the various women he had known and been involved with, some reasonably good, some not. The white smears likely indicate that some of the women were dead when the painting was made.
Murray sketched a small drawing for an eleven-year-old visitor in 1986. Murray drew a picture of himself in yellow with arms upraised, the traditional praise gesture. Beside the figure stands a table with a small bottle of water, just as the setting appeared in Murray’s bedroom, where he conducted his spiritual readings through the water. He surrounded the figure with writing embellished with gold, gold being a color associated in most ancient cultures (and in Murray’s work) with the sun and power. On the reverse side, Murray scripted a blessing, and raising his bottle of water, spoke these words as he wrote them: “God bless this little babe, God protect this little babe.” Each time he intoned the word “God,” he drew several crosses around the edges of the inscription.
For the researcher, it is seemingly impossible to make a psychiatric evaluation of Murray based upon skeletal biographical records. His art, though, does avail itself to analysis. Whereas cultural critics may interpret characteristics of Murray’s work, such as horror vacui and the use of protective script, as indicative of the philosophical underpinnings of a southern African American aesthetic, psychiatrists may interpret these same tendencies as evidence of mental aberrance. Murray was indeed paranoid, delusional, and obsessive. His life and art blur boundaries. He occupies a space where two modes of investigation may meet, where the romanticists of art brut must admit that all creativity is conditioned in part by social experience, and where folklorists and anthropologists must admit that folk culture has its own fertilely unstable margins, whose “idiosyncratic” are often central to the culture’s survival. Many traditions have been forced to survive by being activated at an individual level, among artists who have taught themselves to make objects that give new form and renewed life to old traditions and beliefs.
There is often a huge gulf between what an artist intends and intentions ascribed to him by others. Because Murray’s artwork is preponderating abstract and because access to Murray for research purposes was limited, one of his legacies is to have become a sort of Rorschach test for the various academic, curatorial, and collectorial constituencies interested in him.
The author would like to thank Mary Padgelek, Maude Wahlman, Andy Nasisse, William Rawlings, Judith McWillie, and Steve Slotin for providing information for this essay.