John Murray painting in his studio

Creative Faces > John Murray

A creative face, and also a legendary one. This time we chat to the powerhouse that is John Murray. Decked out in his trademark round specs and smile, John gives us his scoop here.

Hey there John Murray! Where you from?

I was born in Melbourne and grew up in Sydney. I went to National Art School there and was starting to get involved in the art scene, exhibiting at galleries, and was an up and coming young artist. But I was only a young fella, 21 or 22, and I was intimidated by the whole pretentious (wanky) art thing. The final straw was when I was working on an exhibition, and the lady I was working with came in and said she wasn’t sure about my paintings, and tried to steer me in another direction. I jumped in my van and left and didn’t paint again for 8 years. In that time I went overseas, and lived in WA and did a lot of different things. I didn’t like the gallery trying to tell me how to be. You can’t pre-empt what’s going to happen in the creative process. Anyway then I rocked into Lightning Ridge 34 years ago and haven’t left.

You paint and explore the characters, colours, landscapes and humour of the outback.  Tell us about that!

As I do that I also like to think I record history. When I go to the outback I might explore an old cattle station with old buildings and things. I will paint them exactly as they were in 2017 so in 10 years’ time they will be different but that’s what they looked like in 2017. Things change, rot away or completely disappear. I record a disappearing Australia if you like? My work also tells a story of Australia and the characters. Sometimes people even say something that’s so typically Australian that it might spark an idea for a painting. And then there are the colours. I do enhance them but those colours are real. Some city people think they’re very over the top but after a visit out here they get it.

What else can you tell us about the creative processes behind your work?

The process is this: I will go on a 2 week trip with no thought or intention. When I wander, the initial ideas come to me. I take thousands of photos. I get back to my studio and I have all those images. I look through them and that sparks ideas. I start painting it then other elements and ideas come into it and it all comes together. One trip could last me 6-8 months of inspiration and then I’ll go again. That’s the thing – Australia talks to me when I go out there. I love it. I love it so much. The landscapes are so vast and empty, but there is a real roar. When I’m out there I breathe easy and am open to everything that happens. I love central Australia, Simpson desert, that’s real Kidman country, with lots of pioneering spirit out there, abandoned homesteads and lives.

You are based in the intriguing outback town of Lightning Ridge. How do you think the lifestyle and landscape there has impacted your work?

I’ve been here for 34 years, and when I first came here I was on my way around Australia. All I wanted to do was to travel around Australia and be an artist. Some country towns can be hard for non-locals, especially back then, and for an artist which was seen as a bit ‘out there’. But when I got to Lightning Ridge I found like-minded people who were looking for opals. Everyone who was there had come from somewhere else. There was no ownership of the town. There was a relaxed culture. I started painting. The people were good, honest and hardworking. It was ‘ let’s build a claim, make some money, build a house, go to the pub, yahoooo!’

What else have you been up to?

Since the fire that destroyed our building we’ve been busily creating our pop-up gallery. We are rebuilding and it will be open this week!

What have you got coming up?

I am doing a mural on the Coonamble water tower. I am keen to do more mural work, I love the big scale process.

How would you describe your style?

My style is realism, there is a humorous side to it and it’s telling a story. I keep it light hearted with nothing political. People have enough politics in their daily life. I try and make people laugh and smile. Even when I’m painting something decaying and rotten; something that’s had a hard life – I’ll put something light hearted in it like some birds having a laugh.

A lot of people think you need to be city-based to make it in the art world, what would you say the advantages are of being a regional-based artist?

There are so many people trying to be artists in the city, but there are too many. One thing that’s important about being regional, you have to be honest with your work. It’s very hard to make a living as a painter in the outback, so what I’ve discovered is that you need to go down the merchandise track. You can’t reproduce a painting that sold well because if you paint the same painting again, then it doesn’t have the passion of the first. Print cards, and prints and magnets. A lot of artists (and galleries) say they’re not going to do any of that. But it works for us and in the regions. Another thing is that our customer base is travellers so they can’t take big paintings home with them in their caravans. Artists out here need to be able to do a lot of different things to keep doing their work. Otherwise you can work at the hamburger shop and then you’re too tired to paint and get caught up in the drudgery of work. Or you are then at the mercy of bigger galleries who want you to work for them.

So the bottom line is don’t be frightened to paint what you want to paint for yourself. People normally like that.

And of course your wife Viki Murray is also an incredible artist, with her work now available in a wearable form??

Yes she’s a photographer but deep down I think she’s a graphic designer so she’s now getting a lot of her stuff printed on a clothes line through Red Bubble. It’s digitally manipulated stuff. Her photography is going a little more that way too.

What would you be doing if you weren’t an artist?

A carpenter. It’s a bit creative, and I love making things and playing with wood.

Where can we see more of your stuff?

Our new pop-up gallery is next to the post office in Lightning Ridge. You can also find us on Facebook, Youtube and Twitter.

Lastly, Beatles or the Stones?

What? I nearly can’t answer that. Equal. How can you split John Lennon and Mick Jagger?!