While we now appreciate the work of J. B. Murray for its artistic qualities, the artist himself made art strictly for spiritual and protective purposes; his abstract script formed thoughts that were like prayers, providing guidance and offering support to readers. When he first began painting, Murray executed his images on found objects and drew on cash register tape. His doctor, William Rawlings, gave Murray fine art paper and pigments after the artist shared one of his paintings with him. Even though the material was new to him, the motivation was the same. J. B. Murray was a preacher, and his artworks held messages. To interpret these divine messages, the artist would sometimes hold a glass bottle full of water up to the painted surfaces and conduct a sermonlike reading.
Murray came to artmaking late. He lived his entire life in Georgia, where he earned a living as a sharecropper and raised eleven children with his wife. After his children left the family home, one by one, Murray started having visions and began to write "in the spirit." His abstract passages are like painted versions of the experience known as speaking in tongues. The fervor of his technique, the lyrical lines that only he could translate, the obsessive output—all have a transcendental quality. Murray's sophisticated abstract expression is rare in a field in which most creators are more literal storytellers.
Abstract Figures on Paper perfectly illustrates Murray's palette of primary colors—red, blue, and yellow—along with white and black. It also demonstrates a common organizational tool the artist employed: beyond the veil of abstraction one can detect figures. Groups of long, tall men are organized across the page in a grid. Murray's script acts like an accessory on black-robed bodies and is most legible in the top right corner. Who are these phantoms receding into the painted surface? Are they spirits, mediums, gods? Or are they symbolic presences of the family members who once peopled his life?
Brooke Davis Anderson, "Abstract Figures on Paper," in Stacy C. Hollander, American Anthem: Masterworks from the American Folk Art Museum (New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with American Folk Art Museum, 2001), 397.