Thursday, November 8, 2012

Self-Taught Southern Artist J. B. Murry (1908-1988)

J. B. Murry is one of my favorite self-taught artists. He simply was not interested in the commercial aspect of producing his art. He did not paint because he was trying to impress anyone. His abstract art & brilliant use of color are endlessly compelling.

John Benjamin or Bunion Murry (1908-1988) (or Murray, as it is sometimes spelled) was a religious, visionary artist who spent his entire life as a sharecropper in rural Glascock County, Georgia.

Visionary art is a type of "outsider art," or self-taught art produced by people with little or no formal training & little or no connection to the art establishment. But visionary art has an added dimension: Its practitioners feel an overwhelming compulsion, usually religious, to create. They view their imagination as a force of God or nature. In the words of John J.B. Murry, "When I started I prayed & prayed & the Lord sunk a vision from heaven."

Born into a poor family & without any formal education, he married a young neighbor, Cleo Kitchens, when he was in his early twenties. He built a small house for the 11 children they eventually had together, & he supported the family by working on nearby farms. His wife later left him, & he never remarried.

In 1977, soon after a dislocated hip forced his retirement, Murry experienced his vision from God, in which he was called to spiritually mediate between God & humankind in a world beset by evil forces. During the last 10 years of his life, Murry created a great number of works which featured his unique spirit script, which he believed contained direct messages from God. Many of his paintings deal with heaven & hell and the battle between good & evil.

Murry came under the care of Dr. William Rawlings, Jr. for a hip problem in 1977. Believing that Dr. Rawlings was also a spiritual doctor & would understand them, Murry began sending his physician these spirit script messages. At the time, Murry was drawing on whatever pieces of paper were at hand. While Dr. Rawlings may not have understood the writing on Murry's brightly colored designs, he did realize that J. B. Murry was a talented artist & began to supply him with higher quality materials.

Although unable to read or write the English language, he subsequently began to compose calligraphic texts that he claimed were spiritually inspired - essentially a written equivalent of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. He believed that this writing was the direct word of God & that it could be deciphered by spiritually pure individuals, but only if they read it through a clear glass container filled with clean water.

Murry wrote his spirit messages while in a trance. To understand the script he had written, he would pray, and then would view the writing through a bottle of holy water drawn from a well in his back yard.

Murry wanted to share his vision with fellow believers, & he inserted some pages of this “spirit script” in envelopes that he passed out to fellow members of his church congregation, until the pastor asked him to refrain from doing so. Others he nailed to the walls of his house, in keeping with an African American tradition that writing of any kind can be used to deflect & confuse evil spirits. Murry developed a growing body of followers who came to his home & listened to his interpretations of God’s teachings as expressed through him & his art.

Though Murry at first produced the script on whatever materials he could find, including scraps of papers & receipts; his drawings became more & more complex over time, as he added abstract, human-like figures to his creations & began to draw & paint in bright colors on larger canvases.

He began salvaging discarded objects that he felt were symbolically significant & painting them with expressionistically abstracted, columnar forms that have been characterized as guardian figures. As with the spirit scripts on his walls & the piles or rocks, bricks, & broken concrete slabs he constructed in his yard, he strategically placed these painted objects around his house for purposes of spiritual protection.

In his early paintings, he employed a color scheme that was specifically coded, with yellow representing divine presence; blue connoting positive energy, & red signifying evil. White & black represented spiritual purity & impurity. All of his work deals with the interplay of these forces in the mortal world, from which he departed in 1988, after succumbing to prostate cancer.