John Bunion Murray


Murray (or Murry, as it is sometimes spelled) was a visionary artist who spent his entire life in rural Glascock County, Georgia. Born into a poor African American family in anarea rife with racial prejudice, he married a young neighbor, Cleo Kitchens, when he was in his early twenties. He built a small house for them and the eleven childrenthey eventually had together, and he supported the family by working on nearby farms. His wife later left him, and he never remarried.In 1978, soon after a dislocated hip forced his retirement, Murray experienced what he described as a vision, in which he was called to spiritually mediate betweenGod and humankind in a world beset by evil forces. Although unable to read or write the English language, he subsequently began to compose calligraphic texts that heclaimed were spiritually inspired-essentially a written equivalent of glossolalia, or speaking in tongues. He believed that this writing was the word of God and that itcould be deciphered by spiritually pure individuals, but only if they read it through a clear glass container filled with clean water.Murray 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 refrainfrom 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 and confuse evilspirits. At around the same time he began salvaging discarded objects that he found symbolically significant and painting them with expressionistically abstracted,columnar forms that have been characterized as guardian figures. As with the spirit scripts on his walls and the piles of rocks, bricks, and broken concrete slabs that hehad previously constructed in his yard, he strategically placed these painted objects around his house for purposes of spiritual protection.In the early painted objects and until collectors of his work later gave him access to a more varied palette, he employed a color scheme that, according to collector and scholar William Arnett’s sources, is specifically coded, with yellow representing divine presence; blue connoting positive energy, and red signifying evil, while whiteand black respectively represented spiritual purity and impurity. All of his work deals with the interplay of these forces in the mortal world, from which he departed after succumbing to prostate cancer.