There is a small, framed drawing of the torso and arms of a slender woman hanging in the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center Gallery that is so exquisite in the detail and use of light that it almost looks like a black and white photograph.
Of course, William Murray has a story to tell about it.
“The artist was the enforcer for a cocaine gang,” Murray says in a matter-of-fact tone, the same tone he uses when he says, “They killed one of my students, the Irish gang did.”
Murray, trained at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and the University of Minnesota, is well versed in the language of art. What surprises is the nomenclature of crime and violence that permeates his conversations about his own art, and the art of his students.
Until he retired recently, Murray had taught art to bank robbers, murderers and child molesters since 1974 at Stillwater prison. Along the way, he became instructor, coach, confidant and friend to some of society’s worst misfits.
Starting Friday, work from some of his students from the 1970s and ’80s will be on display at the Bloomington gallery, along with riveting and disturbing work by Murray himself, art inspired — or perhaps “provoked” is a better word — by the prison and the people inside.
Looking around the room the first time he saw the exhibition displayed, Murray came to a startling conclusion: “It looks like the inmates were happier than I was.”
Indeed, among Murray’s own works is one drawing called “Portrait of David.” The caption explains that the subject of the art once cut his finger off with a paper cutter and gave it to Murray as a gift.
Most of the inmates’ artworks are gifts, too, given to Murray by cop killers, psychopaths and the like, because as an instructor he drew small bits of beauty out of people whose lives were grim and ugly.
Asked where the artists are now, Murray says, “Most of them are dead.”
Murray grew up poor, dabbled with gangs and has met his own moments of darkness, so he knows that such beauty and evil can reside inside of one person. He knows that the same guy who did a stunning portrait of him, for example, could also have killed a police officer.
He knows it, but after decades of living with people who have committed heinous acts, he still doesn’t understand why. He pulls a quote out of the air: “We are not evil because of things we do, we are evil because we are evil.”
Murray’s unusual art career started almost by happenstance, when he went to visit a friend in jail. He started working part time, then became the state’s first full-time prison art teacher.
He recalls that for his first class, he brought a grade book. One inmate immediately told him what to do with it.
“He said, ‘Do you think I care about grades?’ ” Murray said. “ ‘I’m down for 19 years, I don’t care about grades.’ ”
Murray quickly learned about prison rules and conduct, and he became as adept at survival as the cons. “The first thing I did was make the first-degree murderers my clerks,” Murray said. “That way no one would steal my [art materials].”
He looked at one of the artworks. “He suffered from the same thing I did, shame,” he said.
Another student didn’t feel he deserved to draw on nice paper, so he used cardboard to do a stunning portrait that looks like a Matisse.
“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.’ ”
(Out of the Abyss: William Murray and the Prison Art Project, runs at the Bloomington Theatre and Art Center, 1800 W. Old Shakopee Road, April 12 to May 17).