Bearers of the Word: Jef Murray

I’ve been a fan of Jef Murray and his work for quite awhile, as he’s very well known in Catholic and Tolkienian artistic circles.  Only in the last year, however, have I gotten to know him.  We met on Facebook.

I always smile a bit when more Luddite-ish friends tease me for being active in various social media.  I smile because I have developed some very meaningful friendships and alliances through such media over the last half decade, and I’m thrilled that technology can facilitate various forms of community.

Jef is one of those I’ve had the privilege to get to know, though I very much look forward to meeting him in person one day.

Jef supports himself through his very Catholic art.  Please support Jef support himself! There’s obviously a deep tradition of Catholic patronage of the arts.  From my viewpoint, Jef makes sacramentality tangible in his art.  I hope you agree.

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BB: Jef, please tell us a bit about yourself.

JM: My name is Jef Murray. I’m a fantasy artist and illustrator (www.JefMurray.com), married to author Lorraine V. Murray. I’m best known for my paintings and illustrations of works by J.R.R. Tolkien, and my paintings and sketches have appeared regularly in Middle-earth and fantasy-themed publications and Catholic publications worldwide.

BB:  How did you come to Catholicism?

JM: To quote Flannery O’Connor, I came to the Church “by means the Church does not allow”. That is to say, I was drawn to the Catholic faith as an adult initially because of the beauty and splendor of the works of art, music, poetry, architecture, and writings that she inspired. And it was only after coming to appreciate these things did I began looking more closely at what the Church actually teaches.

BB: Who do you think the significant Catholics are today? Why? What distinguishes them?

JM: I am not that well versed in the significant players in the Catholic world as a whole, but there are certain clergy members and artists/writers that I admire. I am a fervent devotee of Pope Benedict XVI and believe that he and his predecessor have made great strides toward shepherding the Church back toward her timeless teachings and traditions…things that I believe were largely ignored or consciously discarded immediately following the Second Vatican Council. I look forward to a time when much of the heterodoxy and confusion that was introduced during the 1970s and continues through today has been corrected.

But, in terms of other significant Catholic folk, I’d count writers like Joseph Pearce, Peter Kreeft, Paul Thigpen, and Michael O’Brien. I’d include actors like Kevin O’Brien. I’d count clergy members like Archbishop Charles Chaput, Fr. James Schall, Fr. Dwight Longenecker, Fr. Joseph Fessio of Ignatius Press, and Father Robert Spitzer. But these are just folk with whose work I’m familiar…as I said, I’m not a conscious follower of who is doing what in the grand scheme of things.

BB: The big question: how do you bring your faith into your work?

JM: In the world of fantasy art, there is much darkness, but there are also great opportunities to bring light to those who love the genre. I do some religious paintings and illustrations, but like C.S. Lewis, it seems to me a better thing to try to slip Truth past the “watchful dragons” that often prevent people from knowing God. That is, one can speak directly of heroism, devotion, faith, hope, and love without overtly pulling Jesus into your art. And this in and of itself can have profound consequences for those who come to know your work.

Before I create a painting…regardless of the subject matter…I pray for guidance and help, and I bless the canvas and anoint it with holy water. Thus, every work of art I endeavor to bring into being is offered back to God, for Him to use to touch those who encounter it. This doesn’t absolve me of the need to continue to improve my skills as an artist, but it does set the context for all that I do and all that I hope it may achieve.

BB:  That’s absolutely beautiful.  What do you see as the future of the Catholic faith?

JM: Immediately, the future of the Catholic faith should be a reaffirmation of those enduring traditions and teachings that were so upset by the cultural upheavals of the 1960s. The Church allowed herself to be “protestantized” during the 1970s and through to our times. And by this, I mean that she has allowed the mystical elements of her divine liturgy to be watered down or glossed over. We must, as Catholics, insist on beauty and reverence in our churches; we need a return to the use of Gregorian chant, polyphony, etc. We need churches that draw on the architectural heritage of our faith. Most of all, we need to reeducate the members of our congregations, reminding them of what the Church has always taught and why.

We have raised two generations now of Catholics that largely don’t even know what the Church teaches, and as a result, many Masses are more like social gatherings than encounters with Christ. If we can turn this trend around, I believe the Church’s future will be very bright indeed. And I believe many young people crave the mystical element that is so often lacking in “groovy” Masses celebrated by 60s-era priests who themselves are often confused about Church teachings.

BB: Another big question.  What is the relationship of art and faith?

JM: I think they are intimately and inseparably intertwined. In fact, I believe that J.R.R. Tolkien said it best when he claimed that we humans are storytellers…we love creating tales and sharing them. And how better for God to reach us than through a story: the story of the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. But, with God, it is more than a story…it is a tale written into actual history rather than on the pages of a book.

The job of an artist is to punch through the mundane, everyday motions of life and remind us of our sacred nature. A really good painting, a well-written and poignant poem, a powerful drama, all pull us out of ourselves and into contact with the good, the true, and the beautiful. And it is to be in contact with these Thomistic virtues that we are all seeking, whether we know it consciously or not.

BB.  Ok, final question.  You obviously love CSL and JRRT–any other authors really grab your attention?

JM: I’m a great fan of G.K. Chesterton and Flannery O’Connor, to name two right off the bat. I also love the writings of Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, George MacDonald, and William Morris. I’m aware of some other contemporary writers who seem to be working in the same fields as the Inklings, but none of those I’ve encountered thus far quite tap the same mythical veins as did CSL and JRRT…or if so, they don’t inspire me in the same ways. If I was a writer instead of an illustrator, I’d want to make it my business to try to explore those realms, as I believe writers like Madeleine L’Engle have tried to do.

BB: It’s been a pleasure, Jef.  Thanks so much for your time.

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One thought on “Bearers of the Word: Jef Murray

  1. Jennifer Roche says:

    Interesting work and art. I enjoyed this article. Thank you!

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