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June 24, 2002

Artistic simplicity

By Eric Rangus

Unconventional is perhaps too strong a word to describe Jef Murray’s philosophy on life. “Conventional” doesn’t suit him, either—and that’s not a bad thing.

Murray has worked at Emory since 2000—first in the Carlos Museum, then moving last year to the Pitts Theology Library, where he is an interlibrary loan specialist.

Murray’s current position is a far cry from his previous vocation, and he couldn’t be happier.

“I’m a recovering engineer,” Murray laughs. Murray has bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Georgia Tech and has spent the better part of 20 years developing software, writing research papers, developing simulations, creating integrated circuits and doing all sorts of state-of-the-art work.

After graduating in 1982 and entering the work force, Murray made a good living, a good salary and by most people’s standards had an excellent career. There really was just one thing missing: fulfillment.

“All of our time outside of work was spent recovering,” Murray says of himself and his wife, Lorraine, who had built a solid career of her own in public relations.

“A vast majority of people feel stuck in their jobs,” he continues. “The farther you go in a career, the more money you make, the more valuable you are in whatever it is you’ve chosen to do. As salary increases, cost of living goes up. Our national pastime is spending more than we earn.”

That was the carousel Murray rode until 1993, when he read a book titled Your Money or Your Life. The book, written by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin, educates people on how to take control of their finances, which—in turn—would allow them to retake control of their lives.

And that’s exactly what Murray did. He leaped off the earn-and-spend treadmill. He and his wife carry no debt.

They own their home, own one car (giving up a second car, Murray admitted, was tough, but the fact he lives within walking distance of campus took some of the edge off), and both work part-time at Emory.

In 1996, he founded a group called Voluntary Simplicity–Atlanta (, which is geared toward empowering people to develop financial independence. Murray gives free seminars throughout Atlanta and also leads monthly study groups on the subject.

His listserv is nearing 200 subscribers, and while the entire operation focuses on finances, Murray makes no money off it. While the message is not dissimilar to something that might spring from a Tony Robbins infomercial, Murray is much less contrived when delivering it.

“One of the points of Voluntary Simplicity is to make your life whole,” he says. “A lot of what we do is give you tools to look at your life and say, ‘Does it all make sense? Am I living in a way that is consistent with my deepest yearnings for myself, my family and my community?’

“If it isn’t, I’ve got a choice,” Murray continues. “I can change my values, or I can change my actions. Either is OK.”

Murray says that Voluntary Simplicity has been called both liberal and conservative, but he notes that it isn’t either. It’s more about matching one’s life to one’s values, whatever they may be.

Regardless, since becoming involved with Voluntary Simplicity, Murray’s life changed. Disillusioned with engineering, a vocation he longer felt matched what he wanted out of life, he walked away.

The fact that Murray leaves work at 11:30 a.m. every day gives him a chance to devote most of his time to what he now considers his career: art.

Murray has painted works for the Georgia and Florida chapters of the Nature Conservancy and the Tennessee Aquarium, among others. He also has sketched pandas for a Zoo Atlanta fundraiser.

He donated his most recent painting to the Nature Conservancy of Georgia. A friend of Murray’s works for the conservancy in an office on the Conasauga River in northwest Georgia. The river supports 24 rare and imperiled species, including a certain type of minnow called the Conasauga Logperch. With development quickly encroaching on the waterway, the minnow is in danger. This is the situation Rick Guffey, North Georgia conservation director of the Georgia chapter, wanted to illustrate. He contacted Murray for help.

“But,” Murray asks, “how do you make a minnow interesting? You paint them this big,” he says, opening his arms about three feet wide.

And paint them in their vivid mating colors. Murray’s minnow painting is pictured on his website (, and last week he delivered the original to Guffey. It now hangs in the nature conservancy office in Dalton. Eventually, the image will grace articles ranging from brochures to T-shirts.

“It’s something to show people,” Murray says. “‘Why should I care about minnows?’ That’s why,” he exclaims with a point of his finger.

“They’re beautiful. This is where art can make a connection.”

Murray averages one painting a week. What he doesn’t donate, he sells out of his basement studio (also called MarshNest, named after his and wife Lorraine’s former home in Cedar Key, Fla.) in Decatur.

For someone who has concentrated on his craft for just three years, Murray has been fairly successful. His paintings have appeared in online galleries (like as well as local outlets such as Primitive Eye. Murray also contributed several paintings to last spring’s faculty/staff art show, which was held in the Dobbs Center.

“There’s a sense of legitimacy you get seeing your work shown,” he says. “It’s a very liberating feeling. You go through this long process thinking about a hobby—something you do for fun. Then you start taking it a bit more seriously and you realize, ‘This is a talent I have, and I can share it.’

“I think a lot of people [have hobbies] that they are perfectly capable of turning into careers; they just don’t have any self-confidence. I didn’t either for years. But I came to a point where I figured I could hang this stuff, and if it gets booed off the walls, I’d give it to my friends and neighbors. But it hasn’t turned out that way. ”

Murray jokes that he is moving up the biological chain with his subject matter. He started with insects (the first picture he ever sold was of a grasshopper), then advanced to crustaceans and mollusks. Now he paints vertebrates—fish and birds. No mammals, though. Not yet, anyway.

“I’ve kind of shied away from the animals I really love until I feel that my technique has gotten good enough that I can do them justice,” Murray says, listing a manatee as one of those he hopes eventually to paint.

Murray sees his artistic life as intertwined with his work with Voluntary Simplicity, as well as with a new endeavor—teaching classes in nonviolent communication.

“At this point in our country’s history, it is really crucial that people learn how to communicate in a way that allows them to speak from the heart rather than just the cerebral cortex,” he says. “When you’re speaking out of your brain, you tend to speak in ways that are domination-oriented. It’s not intentional, but that’s the way the language works.

“I’m looking for a way to get people to work out their differences in a nonviolent and compassionate way. We all have the same needs and the same feelings about life. The problem is our language masks that.”

Murray plans to start the nonviolent communications classes in September and will use the book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg as the text for the 13-week class. The goal will be to study ways of compassionately connecting with others through listening and through words.