Painting in Signs

Painting in Signs

First published: Spring 2019

For most of his life, John Bunion Murray was a tenant farmer whose only goal was to provide for his family. Born in 1908 in Glascock County, Georgia, he had started working the land after leaving school at the age of six. He married Cleo when he was 29 and the couple went on to have eleven children. Murray worked the land for over twelve hours each day to put food on the table; the years passed, the children grew up and went on to have their own families. In the late 1970s, Cleo became ill and moved in with one of their daughters to be cared for. By this time, Murray had retired and he went to live on the land of one of his sons, in a ramshackle house with neither electricity nor indoor plumbing. He lived alone and spent his time tending his vegetable garden and going to church.

Then, according to Murray, one day in 1977 he had a fantastic vision – as he watered his potato plants, he said he witnessed the sun descend into his yard while a holy eagle flew nearby. He maintained that his body was illuminated; his hands were drenched with molten yellow; all was warm and pure, and there seemed to be no separation between what was in that sacred moment and his earthly frame. Murray said that God himself then visited him and allowed him to ask any question he pleased. “I asked him to see my mother. He brought her before me and two brothers. And the three come up as a shadow, a spiritual shadow; ain’t like us, ain’t like our body…”.
 


Untitled
, c. 1978–88, marker on paper, 14 x 17 in. / 36 x 43 cm, courtesy of John Turner

Finally, Murray recalled, the Holy Spirit revealed itself to him in the form of an asemic script (symbols without an oral pronunciation or meaning). “Everything I see is from the sun”, Murray said in a videotaped interview in 1986. “God told me to write these letters. It is the language of the Holy Spirit, direct from God.” He “received” the letters by holding a glass bottle of water toward the sun like a telescope. Considering it was his mission to pass on the godly message to the world’s faithful, Murray scrawled the letters across any materials he could find, including adding-machine tape rolls, Styrofoam and broken chunks of plasterboard.

Murray’s neighbours knew him as a quiet, kind man, always ready to lend a hand; his face was marked by two deep dimples that seemed to guide his mouth into a perpetual smile. He attended church regularly, but wasn’t the most spiritual of men – the sun vision, however, changed that practically overnight. His faith took root and he passionately embraced the opportunity to serve his God. He showed the script to his fellow parishioners at the Second Mineral Springs Baptist Church but his revelation was greeted with concern as well as wonder. Family members urged him to be more discreet but his insistence on the literalness of his vision caused concern and, for a brief time, they had him detained for observation at a psychiatric hospital. 
 

This is an article extract; read the full article in Raw Vision #101