By Mary Padgelek
In the movie, “Simon Burch”, Joe, the young protagonist, says:
“You’re never prepared for the moment that changes your life.”
I know how true that is. A chance encounter in a university library in 1993 changed my life in ways I never could have foreseen or believed. I was drawn into the life of a person I never physically met.
As part of my course work for Spirituality in Art, I was looking though a catalog of the work of southern visionary artists when I saw a cryptic pseudo-script that I immediately recognized. Just a few weeks before my husband and I had been enjoying a folk art exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., when I found myself staring, fascinated, at a small framed piece of scrap paper covered with that same “script.” A large African-American guard approached, whispered, “He wrote down the messages he got from God,” and quietly returned to his post.
Now here I was, in the university library, staring again, fascinated again—at that same mysterious scrawl. I was suddenly intensely curious about this artist and his messages from God.
Thus I came to meet J.B. Murray. He reached out to me from beyond this life and pulled me, very quietly, inexorably, into his. What drew me—a comfortably middle-class, urban white woman with a Ph.D., to this dirt poor, illiterate father of eleven who passed all eighty of his years in tiny, obscure Mitchell, Georgia? Why did I feel, instantly, such a deep connection with J.B? It would take me quite a while to discover the answer to that question.
I was eager to read everything about him, but, despite his apparent fame, very little had been written, just the bare bones of his story. At age seventy, J.B., who had never before experienced any artistic impulse whatsoever, very suddenly began feverishly producing remarkably original art, using whatever crude materials were at hand. From the first, the work, with its raw color and dynamic marks, was powerful in its energy. What could account for this? I had to know—had to learn the deeper story of J.B. Murray and what drove him. I had no choice but to go to the source, so I headed for Mitchell to seek out people who had known him.
He had died just five years before I got there. Had I not started when I did, I would have missed his friends and family, too.
J.B.’s friend and doctor, Dr. William Rawlings, a friendly man in his forties, dressed casually for the weekend, who opened the door with a fried chicken leg in his hand, gave me my first look at his paintings. Dr. Rawlings was a Renaissance man: a writer, an avid reader, and art collector, as well as a physician. He generously reminisced on how JB would soon decide that he, Rawlings, was a part of his call and how JB began to bring him so many painted envelopes, scrolls of adding machine tape full of script, that all the closets in his office were filled from floor to ceiling. After each delivery J.B. would say “Hi Doc, this is for you. You’ll know what to do with it.” JB was convinced that Rawlings would be the one to bring JB’s message from God to the attention of the world. I could tell he had been deeply affected by his friendship with J.B. and that he had indeed felt that he was a part of J.B.’s call in some mysterious way.
After our first conversation, Dr. Rawlings led me to the next room where there were J.B.’s work– four large paintings. This was a side of the artist I had not seen in his monochromatic script. The colors, the form, tension, and power of this work and his haunted, staring figures amazed me.
Some who had known Murray thought he was mentally ill and created his art out of his delusions. Some art collectors and historians would describe him as an “outsider” artist, possibly psychotic—schizophrenic. Others, especially those from his church, thought a bad spirit had gotten a hold of him—not that he was bad, but “people can be fooled,” they told me.
But then there were those, particularly his sister in law Sara, who believed as J.B. did, that God had called him and that he had answered that call. She described him as “glowing like a man with one foot on earth and the other in heaven” as he talked excitedly about his latest vision. It was clear that she had no doubts about his gift or his call. And, as I stared at his meandering lines, stunning colors, and read his own words describing his belief that his well contained “the water that Jesus walked on,” I somehow knew that what I saw and the words I read were not the product of mental illness.
J.B. told an interviewer that when he was seventy years old, watering the potatoes in his garden, a “spiritual eagle” suddenly sped across his field of vision. From that moment he understood that he could now see things “other folks can’t see.” He saw Jesus come down to him on a cloud as a yellow light shone down and “turned my hands yellow-like.” Then, believing that the Holy Spirit was physically moving his hands, he began making marks on paper and other materials he had around his house and yard. The resulting drawings and paintings show haunted, staring figures caught up in a chaotic mass of lines and surrounded with dazzling colors. These people were in hell. J.B. felt called to warn people: “You live as though God don’t exist, and someday you gonna find out you was wrong.” Though very little had been written about J.B., I found enough to convince me that only his unshakable faith in God’s call had transformed him from the quiet, private family man he’d been all his life to a passionate, driven artist.
Like J.B., I, too, believe that God has called me to create art. I have never had visions like J.B.’s, yet I believe God led me to spend the rest of my life trying to communicate to others the truth and vibrancy of the Spirit who touched J.B. Murray and who touches me. I would tell the story of the call through words, art, and eventually through music and dance.
In 1998 I finished my dissertation on J.B. Murray and graduated with a Ph.D. in Art. Because I believed that Murray’s amazing story needed to be told, I sent my dissertation to Mercer University Press to assess their interest in publishing it as a book. To my great surprise, they gave me a publishing contract immediately. In the Hand of the Holy Spirit: the Visionary Art of J.B. Murray was published in 2000 and won the Georgia Author of the Year in the Category Biography award from the Georgia Author of the Year Association. With that very pleasing success, I mistakenly thought my partnership with J.B. Murray would come to its natural close.
My husband Fred had laughed a year earlier about how the story of Murray would make a good musical. I agreed. From my first introduction to J.B., I believed his passion and vision made his story “sing and dance.” The mystery and power of his story need more than mere words. I could imagine a string of songs led by ecstatic dancing to a finale of choral explosion.
The idea of a musical really took hold, but I was in the throes of defending my dissertation and didn’t think my committee would be amused. But now that I was finished with school and had turned the manuscript over to Mercer; I was free! “If I were to try to interest someone in making this story into a musical, how would I go about it?” I wondered. Fred suggested I call some theater people in town and ask for their help, so I did. A university professor who had written, directed, and performed in community theater suggested that I compile a package to present to prospective writers: a few song titles, the story line, a description of the target audience, and the reasons it would make a good musical. So — I began.
A few months later, on Good Friday in the year 2000, as I set out for my daily exercise walk around my neighborhood, a voice broke into my consciousness. “You do it,” it commanded.
“You do it.”
I heard it plainly. I knew what it meant. I had opened my life to the things of God in college, and ever since, I had occasionally felt led by an inaudible voice. Whenever I would speak of this experience, I would see only puzzled stares, so it became my secret. I didn’t hear this voice often, nor could I summon it. But when I did hear it, I knew who it was.
“You do it.”
“What do you mean, ‘You do it?’” I argued out loud as I could imagine Moses arguing with God about his lack of qualifications for the job ahead. “I’m not a musician and I’ve never even thought about writing a song, much less all the songs needed for a musical. This is preposterous!” I went on like this for all four laps of my walk. Fred was home from work early that day and when I got in, I looked at him and asked, “What would you think if I wrote the musical?” ( I didn’t mention the voice.) He surprised me: “You need to do it.” He was serious. I argued with him in disbelief and then finally, because of the impossibility of my being able to do such a thing, changed the subject, putting the issue to rest. Or so I thought.
Two nights later, late Easter evening, the first song inspiration came to me. I play the piano by ear in the key of C, so I got out of bed and ran to the piano. Music was running through my semi-consciousness and I just played it as it came to me. Afraid I would forget it all, I taped it. After two hours I went to bed. The next morning words came. I wrote them down. Soon ideas were bombarding me all hours of the day and night. Sometimes the music came first; sometimes the words. Even while driving, a song would come and I’d have to pull over and write it down. I’d get inspirations in the shower and have to hum a melody into a nearby tape recorder or find a dry surface to write on. Songs were waking me up in the middle of the night and I’d stumble through the dark house to the piano. Finally I kept a tape player and notepad with me at all times.
To my complete amazement, after just a month and a half, I had written twenty-four songs.
Now I needed to do something with them. I was only able to record them on tape, write down the lyrics, and write the chords over the words—all in the key of C. Just a few days later, a friend mentioned that she had a computer program called “Cake Walk,” which could take what I had and translate it into music that could be read by others and sung in other keys. I hired her to translate my twenty-four songs into written music. Meanwhile, I was reading every “How to write a musical” book I could find, compiling two huge notebooks on everything from plotting to character development. Every time I was tempted to seek professional help, the voice was back, “You do it.”
I finished a complete draft of the libretto of what I now called, Hands of the Spirit. When all the lead sheets were complete, I sent it out to a repertory theater company connected with the University of Georgia. Six months later it came back, rejected, without comment. I was disappointed but undaunted. The university had chosen to produce a play on Lizzy Borden, the ax murderess. I guess they were looking for something different from what Hands of the Spirit offered.
It soon became clear that I needed a quality recording of the music. Handing out a massive notebook of words and written music just didn’t do. My “You do it” was going to have to expand. Mark Maxwell, an experienced musician acquaintance, made it clear that though hiring musicians and studio time would require considerable sacrifice, without a CD, nothing could happen. Of course, I had no guarantees that any investment would ever pay off. I wondered why God would give me a task that was so far beyond my abilities. Yet either I had faith that I had truly heard from God on that Good Friday afternoon, or I hadn’t. Inspired by J.B. Murray, I resolved to keep going and never turn back.
I sold trappings of my past to fund my very uncertain future. My mother had given me silver for entertaining, but I never had the kind of social life that she and my father had had, so the silver had been turning black in the attic for years. Feeling like Jean Valjean selling the bishop’s silver and becoming an honest man in Les Miserables, I sold it all. The money covered the cost of the musicians and the studio recording time. I had only heard the songs in my mind, but now for the first time, I got to hear what professionals could do with my twenty-four songs. It was thrilling.
Next I volunteered at Athens Creative Theatre, which specialized in musicals. I helped with Damn Yankees, then Shenandoah and Les Miserables, learning all I could about how musicals are put together– how the chorus, dance, and the individual songs combined to tell a story.
From 2000 to 2004 I worked constantly to improve Hands of the Spirit in any way I could, always having to fight discouragement and worry that my huge investments of time, money, and effort would be in vain. Theater and music people often looked bored when I talked about the project. After ten rejections, friends were also beginning to look at me with pity, challenging my belief in my initial experience on Good Friday. Though I hardly mentioned Hands of the Spirit to anyone any more, I never stopped working on it.
A few months later, Fred casually mentioned Hands of the Spirit to Nancy, an old friend in charge of exhibitions and events at Lyndon House Arts Center. When she learned that it was about a Georgia folk artist, she expressed interest in possibly putting it on in conjunction with an extensive Georgia Folk Art exhibit in the fall of 2004. She had always wanted to do a collaboration with Tom Coleman, the director of Athens Creative Theatre, with whom I had worked earlier. I had not told Tom about Hands of the Spirit because he had said once that he didn’t produce the work of local playwrights, but when he read the script and listened to the music, to everyone’s surprise, he liked it. ”There is no way you should be able to do this. There are about eight different styles of music here. How could one person do this? How did you know to do this kind of song here, for instance?” (He was talking about “We Know This Already”). Tom kept saying, “This could go somewhere.” All discouragement disappeared.
“Hands of the Spirit” debuted in Athens, Georgia in 2004, had a second performance run at the historic Morton Theatre in Athens in 2007 and is promised a third performance run in Savannah in the near future.
From my first introduction to the strange art of J.B. Murray in 1993, I’ve always seen such beauty in his story. It is a story of mystery. A story of hope. Most of all, it is a story of one person’s following his call with persistence, courage, and faith. People ask me if I believe JB really did receive a call from God that day as he watered his potatoes. I tell them that we cannot know the experience of another; we can only look at the results. But when they ask me whether I believe God called me to this work on JB Murray, I can only say, “Oh yes, with all my heart.”