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“This is kind of a tender piece,” Murray said, moving to one of his own works. The piece in question seemed harmless and quaint, representations of small animals and feathers. It’s only when Murray explained it that it turned dark: The work was inspired by inmates who adopted birds or mice, even cockroaches, that made their way into prison “just so they could have something to nurture.”
Murray said he forced inmates to examine themselves and their lives in the art. To keep them from simply copying something they’d seen, he’d give them assignments such as “draw a childhood memory.”
Some were sentimental and surprising; others told of dark upbringings, such as “Backhand and Mad Backhand,” which represented the beatings the inmate got as a child.
Murray has spoken to groups about his job and occasionally gets asked why inmates should be able to take an art class.
“The truth is, this is something that shows they are trying to turn their lives around,” Murray said. “They are trying to find a little bit of redemption for what they’ve done.”
Some of the inmates survive, and continue their art. Many of them don’t, Murray said.
Looking at Murray’s own art — which includes a piece that features photos from a sexually abused woman who has cut herself and a box filled with syringes, bullets and other implements of destruction called “Box of Nightmares” — it’s clear he is lucky to be a survivor himself of his prison job.
“Prisons have become our mental institutions,” Murray said. “When people ask for one word to describe them, the only thing I can think of is ‘madness.’ ”
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