John Murray has established himself as one of the outback’s most successful landscape artists through the realism and humour of his paintings.
Story By Nick Cook
When John Murray was in his early thirties he flipped a coin, the outcome of which changed the course of his life. He wanted to get out of the city and see more of Australia but he wasn’t sure which direction to go. It was a 50-50 choice: he had one mate in Tasmania and another in Lightning Ridge. Those who know anything about his iconic outback artwork will already know he chose the latter option.
Not that his art career was going very well at the time. In fact, it had ground to a complete halt. Despite his degree from the National Art School, John hadn’t put brush to canvas in 10 years. “I was a bit disillusioned with the art scene and wasn’t sure what I was doing as an artist and what the galleries wanted or didn’t want,” he says.
Being in Lightning Ridge, though, helped him rediscover his love of painting. The town, he says, has been one of his major inspirations. “It’s just the nature of the town,” John says. “It’s full of transient people and creative types and people who work for themselves and have a desire to do something for themselves. The thing that really got to me was that nobody cared that I was an artist. They were here doing their own thing.”
One thing John has in common with many of Lightning Ridge’s residents is that he tried to leave but found he couldn’t. After his initial three-month stay he hit the road again, planning to continue his trip around Australia, but he didn’t get far. “I got to Moree and then Inverell and it just started to become a little bit suburban. The green lawns and red-tile roofs … were just getting away from what I wanted to do with painting Australia.” So he went back to stake a residential claim on the opal fields – “It was $12.50 for the year so I could afford the rent” – and the rest is history.
If Lightning Ridge has played a large role in shaping John Murray, he’s certainly returned the favour. In fact, his influence on the town is impossible to avoid. The turn-off from the highway is marked by a giant piece of mining equipment covered in his iconic motif of a cloud-speckled blue sky; at the front of the only pub is a “flying” vehicle – the van he first arrived in and lived out of for some time – featuring “emus on the plane”; and several external walls throughout the town, as well as some internal ones at places such as the Lightning Ridge Bowling Club, have been decorated with his distinctive murals.
You could bump into John on the streets of Lightning Ridge, even in front of one of his murals, and you’d never be able to tell him apart from any other local. He speaks in a cheerfully friendly way and is as interested to hear about others as he is to talk about himself. He has a complete lack of pretension and goes out of his way to avoid offence or controversy. For instance, when asked to expand on the reasons he walked away from the Sydney art scene he hesitates, searching for the politest possible way to phrase his answer. “I’ll say I wasn’t ready for it,” he finally says. “I found the whole art scene not genuine. I was trying to paint something I wanted to paint but the galleries were trying to steer me in the direction they might find more commercial so I had a conflict.” Even this statement is softened to take any criticism out of it. “There was no right or wrong to that conflict,” he says. “I just wasn’t ready for it, which then took me away from painting.”
This story excerpt is from Issue #65
Outback Magazine: June/July 2009