John Bunion Murray

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to navigation Jump to search

John Bunion (J.B.) Murray (1908–1988) was a self-taught artist in Glascock County, Georgia. He is considered to be a major figure in the world of Southern Vernacular Art and Outsider Art. His work is now in many important collections, including that of the American Folk Art Museum[1] and the Smithsonian American Art Museum,[2] and has been featured in many museum exhibitions, including "Self-Taught Genius" at AFAM and "When the Stars Begin to Fall" at the Studio Museum.[3]

Early life[edit]

Murray worked as a sharecropper for the majority of his life. He was married, and he and his wife had eleven children. By the time he was in his fifties, his wife had left him and his children had also left home, leaving him especially isolated.

Religion and Art[edit]

At the age of 70, Murray experienced a religious vision while working the fields which inspired him to produce a remarkable body of abstract paintings and drawings in the last decade of his life.[4] Seeing an eagle descend from the sun, Murray believed that he had been granted a privileged religious insight, which was to be the inspiration for his work as an artist.[5]

Due to the limitations of his circumstances, Murray had little to no formal education, and was unable to read or write. Illiterate, Murray instead developed his own personal style of seemingly unintelligible asemic writing, a sort of modern Adamic script, which he inscribed onto his drawings and paintings.[6] Murray's writing gave him a power he believed could be used for benediction and protection of himself and others. As a part of the process, Murray kept a bottle of what he called "holy water" on a table by his bedside, which he would raise towards the sky whenever he prayed. Murray believed that if a person read his "writing" while looking through the bottle of holy water, that person would read messages from God. During the last few years of his life as his reputation grew as a mystic, Murray would receive visitors on his property who requested ritual readings of the holy water.[7] When writing these holy messages, Murray would often hold the bottle of holy water in one hand and write with the other, keeping his hand as limp as possible, and letting the holy spirit guide it. This process of automatic writing was recorded in a documentary directed and produced by Judith McWillie of the University of Georgia toward the end of his life.[8]

Murray distrusted people who did not believe in God; in his mind, most people had strayed from the Lord's path and were therefore potentially harmful. He also believed that destructive evil spirits populated the world, and thus much of the artwork he created served a protective purpose. His paintings and painted objects functioned as a shield to ward off such harmful forces. Some of his earliest work involved small mysterious piles of stones , concrete blocks, and other found objects, which he positioned around his property. In this way and in many others, his work shares a connection with the tradition of African American Yard Shows, though in person J.B. Murray never commented on the nature of these piles or divulged their purpose.[9]

Art historian Mary Padgelek, who wrote a book about Murray's life and works,[10][11] has also written a musical about him: Visionary Man, being presented at the Hudson Mainstage Theater.[12][13]


  1. ^
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^ Mary Pagdelek, "JB Murray: This Well Grow Deep and Never Run Dry," in Raw Vision, No. 58, p. 42.
  6. ^ "J.B. Murray GPS" McWillie, Judith. pg 1 from Two Transcend: Drawings by J.B. Murray and Melvin Edward Nelson Ed. Randall Morris and Shari Cavin. Cavin-Morris Publishing, 2013
  7. ^ "John B. Murray : The Handwriting on the Wall". Arnett, William. pg 464 from Souls Grown Deep African American Vernacular Art of the South, Volume One. Ed. Arnett, Paul and William Arnett. Tinwood Books, 2000.
  8. ^ "J.B. Murray: Writing in an Unknown Tongue: Reading Through the Water", directed by Judith McWillie
  9. ^ "John B. Murray : The Handwriting on the Wall". Arnett, William. pg 464 from Souls Grown Deep African American Vernacular Art of the South, Volume One. Ed. Arnett, Paul and William Arnett. Tinwood Books, 2000.
  10. ^ Padgelek, Mary G. (2000). In the hand of the Holy Spirit : the art of J.B. Murray. Mercer University Press. ISBN 9780865546998. 
  11. ^ "J.B. Murray: Reading Meaning". The Outsider. Intuit: The Center for Outsider and Intuitive Art. Retrieved 8 August 2014. 
  12. ^ "Spirited Hands Productions to Present New Musical VISIONARY MAN, 7/26-8/31". 24 June 2014. Retrieved 8 August 2014. 
  13. ^ Walker, Alice-Denise (31 July 2014). "Visionary Man Uplifts and Inspires". Life in LA. Retrieved 8 August 2014. 

14. Judith McWillie and Grey Gundaker. No Space Hidden: the Spirit of African American Yardwork (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005) pp. 39, 40, 168 - 171.

External links[edit]