From Peru to Wayne County, from Turkey to Cedar Falls, Jim Murray has spread the word.
A few years ago, Seymour’s art teacher was diagnosed with cancer. He and the late Gus Gustafson were honorary captains for a gridiron matchup between Wayne and Seymour, when the cross country teams ran the football from Seymour to Corydon. The sunset was a brilliant purple.
“You look at purple long enough, pretty soon you see a horsehead,” said Murray, who channels a different station than most people. “I get treated like a rock star at the school. The kids are sweet. I’m engaged in the work, and I’m grateful I’m alive. I hope there is a celebratory aspect in my artmaking.
“The cancer has been humiliating, and I don’t find that in a negative way. When you’re humiliated or broken, you’re more grateful for small things, for other people’s successes.
“Our kids always do fantastic stuff. I’m part of that. They like being around the art room.
“I sop up and morph into the energy level of their creativity—the way they just keep going, the way they slop up stuff or obsess over little things. All those artmaking processes are intriguing to me, are beneficial and add a refresh button for all my heliogyroscopes inside my soul.”
Murray’s art studio is a small space near the old math and English rooms at the mostly abandoned Cambria school building. Behind him, his friend and fellow artist Ross Schreck has written Korean characters on the chalkboard.
Murray’s desk is an old countertop from the Corydon Casey’s General Store. He writes down the hours he has worked on its surface.
“It makes me feel sort of sane,” Murray said, laughing softly. “I’m not sure. I might’ve missed the mark.
“In the afternoon, at honeydew light time, light shafts smack right down like a laser. It’d be really great for a portrait. I lived in a farmhouse near the Cambria Cemetery years ago. I’d drive by here and think, ‘Boy, that’s a stud school.’
Murray now lives in Humeston, commuting to Seymour. Over the years, depending on where he lived, some of his children graduated from Seymour, some from Wayne. He got his teaching degree from Graceland University in Lamoni, student taught with Mary Roberts in Corydon, started teaching Spanish for one semester at Seymour before taking over the art duties there 20 years ago.
“The bones are good,” Murray said of the Cambria building, imagining it as an apartment complex. “Nobody’s making any money off it, and it’s a shame. I would guess with the right amount of money and with the right amount of vision, all this wood could be taken up and you could put in a new floor.
“Sharon Perkins does a good job of keeping it alive and trying to maintain it.”
Murray’s first studio was the room across from where Kenton White once taught science.
“Aren’t these nifty little universes?” Murray said of the small sections he will use to make new collages in the future.
Flipping to Nov. 8, 2018 in his calendar, Murray reads a daily affirmation: “‘Jesus offers to take away your feelings of misery and gloom and replace them with peace beyond understanding and a happiness that’s stronger than circumstances.’ That’s good news.”
“When I was younger, I wanted to be three things,” Murray said. “A pro football player, an artist and a missionary.”
Born in Clinton, Murray grew up in Cedar Falls and Minneapolis. He graduated in 1969 with a class of around 1,200 from Robbinsdale Cooper High School, located in a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities.
Murray’s mother died when he was a freshman, and afterward his father, after serving as a District Attorney in Iowa, became a Minnesota State Judge.
“I had a bunch of college football scholarship offers,” Murray said of being a star at a big school where athletes had to make the cut.
His senior year he played tailback, lined up as an option quarterback, and played defense.
“I played basketball until my senior year, and then I started lifting weights because I had these scholarships.”
Murray chose the University of Northern Iowa. Cedar Falls was where he had grown up.
“I wanted to lose my virginity and find God,” Murray joked. He accomplished both goals. Between his wife and him, they now have 10 children. He also became a missionary.
“A free soul says, ‘You love people or you don’t.’ Sewing seeds is no big deal—tending the garden is another story.”
His athletic dreams ended abruptly, as did his education in art, which he began at UNI. He did get the chance to study poetry under the late James Hearst, the Robert Frost of the Midwest. Hearst knew Frost and taught his work in college.
When Murray went overseas, Hearst bought two of his drawings and wrote a poem for the young Christian missionary.
“I was a runner,” Murray said of his football career. “But the coaches liked my speed and the way I hit, so they were going to make me a pulling guard. I wanted to be a running back.
“It was the first year of freshman eligibility [in college athletics], and I was going to dress for the South Dakota game. In practice the week before, in the trenches, I smacked one of my teammates really hard. He was a linebacker. Knocked his helmet off.
“I got off the ground after the play, and everybody was all pumped up, and I thought, ‘I don’t know if I’m from this tribe anymore.’ I just walked off. That semester, I quit.”
A friend of Murray’s was a starter on the University of Minnesota’s basketball team. They both left college around the same time.
“Bob joined a little Christian group touring Europe and singing in the streets,” Murray said. “He came back so changed that I really took notice. For years after I dropped out, I hitchhiked to Canada, Mexico and across the country.
“I came back one time with my buddy to see my dad. My dad liked Bob because he was a really good athlete. And so, I’m talking about Jesus to my dad.
“I told him, ‘All you’ve got to do is ask Jesus to come into your heart.’
“He’d had a couple of beers. He was a judge, and said, ‘What are you doing trying to talk to me about Jesus?’
“My buddy was talking to him too, and he was so sincere.
“I asked my dad, ‘I need a ticket—I’m going to be a missionary for Jesus.’
“After he listened to us, he got up. He said, ‘So. You’re a hell of an athlete and you get a bunch of scholarships. You pissed that off—fine. Then, you’re a good art student. You could’ve got some scholarships, but you didn’t. That’s fine, as long as you’re staying in college, but you pissed that off. Now, Jesus Christ, you’re going to be a goddamned missionary. What the hell?’ Then he went to bed.”
“I met my wife working in the drug district in Istanbul. She was an American missionary, but she had a daycare, which was kind of like a cover.
“I loved Istanbul. They’re the backsliders of the Muslim world, so there’s a lot of Western feeling, but if you’re coming from the West and you go there, it’s going to be a shock. I’d already lived abroad several years when I went to Turkey. The Turks like the Americans. I fell in love with the Turks.
“You find crazy people all over the world. You find sadness, you find loneliness. I’m sorry—people need love. I cherry pick what I think matters, like love, water and food.”
Murray and his wife lived in Turkey from the mid to late 1970s.
In the early 1980s, they moved to Peru. There, Murray showed his drawings at the Peruvian North American Cultural Institute—a far cry and thousands of miles away from Corydon State Bank, where his paintings are on display this November.
“They do a good job of keeping art in a small community,” Murray said of WAYCO Arts Council. “You don’t need permission to make art.”
In-between, in 2005 he had a show of his collages, a display of his many universes.
“I’d like to have a show in some big city with pure white walls. Abstract art is the way I piece together things. The viewer might look at it and say, ‘Why the hell don’t you get a camera?’ or ‘Why don’t you just paint the flower, why do you have to make it abstract?’ But that’s the way it goes. I’m not trying to convert anybody.”
“I never feared death since I became a Christian believer. In the lonely hours, when a person is at their wit’s end—I died for five minutes in Iowa City, and they resuscitated me—when you look over, and someone’s holding your hand, you realize there’s never been a U-Haul trailer behind a hearse, and look how fast people get forgotten—all of those things cross your mind.
“I was in intensive care for a few days, and I kept telling my wife I loved her.
“I’m grateful I don’t fear death because I have the Lord in my heart. I know it’s not my private property, or the property of the Evangelicals or whatever, it’s just a simplicity of the love of God.
“When I was overseas, healthy and passing out religious tracts, I had half a suitcase and never lacked a thing in my life.
“If I needed something, I’d go to the fanciest restaurant in the world and say, ‘Look, I work for the King of the Universe, and He told me to ask you to feed me a meal. Would you do that?’
“If they said no, I’d say okay, I love you. Or, they’d say, ‘I’d be glad to serve someone that works for the King of the Universe.’
“I did that for 20 years. I’ve had everything and I’ve had nothing, and I’ve never lacked a thing. When you’re a steward of a vision you have in art or in writing or in action or in body, and you know you have to fulfill something because you’re just ready to explode, I’m glad that with whatever energy left I do have in my life, I still have that love, faith and lack of fear of death.
“And religion just isn’t good enough. I could say a 100 million Hail Mary’s, I could genuflect and I could starve myself—like it says in 1st Corinthians 13, ‘If I do all those things and have not charity, what is the profit?’ If you have no love, it doesn’t matter. You could be the biggest guru in the world and sit on a bed of nails and walk on hot coals and it doesn’t matter. Those kinds of things permeate my life, my thoughts and my artmaking now more than ever.
“If you’re a musician, like I told our music teacher at lunch, ‘Where’s your flute? You’re sitting there watching the kids, you should be playing flute for us. Do a little sonata, adagio or something. Come on, rock and roll here, girl!’ If you’re a jock, you should run a marathon.
“Happiness is not underrated. I want my kids to be happy. My role in life is helping them be happy.”
In the meantime, Murray sits in his art studio and watches as universe after universe emerge from the eternal light of Cambria, before he pieces them together to share with his many students.