By Christina Whiting
Michael Murray’s life has been a tapestry of art, education and exploration of other cultures. His father was an educator with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and Murray was born on the Crow Indian Reservation in Montana. The family lived on different reservations in North Dakota throughout Murray’s early childhood. It was through these experiences that Murray learned to appreciate, respect and value cultures different from his.
After high school, Murray completed his bachelor of science in art education and industrial arts. In June 1970, Murray and his former spouse signed a two-year contract as a teaching couple with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and flew to Fairbanks with their 3-year old daughter. Here, they were orientated for teaching in Quinhagak, a Yup’ik community located 100 miles south of Bethel on Kuskokwim Bay, with a population of about 250 people.
The Murrays flew into the village on a small floatplane, just as a freight barge arrived with the village’s supplies for the entire year.
“This was a very rural community,” Murray said. “The only radio station we could get was from the USSR and we could only communicate with other schools through a two-way radio.”
Initially, most homes had no electricity; the only place that had regular power was the school, thanks to a generator. There were no phones in the village and communication was done by mail, via one mail plane a week. Murray’s greatest challenge was the language barrier.
“I didn’t speak Yup’ik,” he said. “And I was working with people whose first language was Yup’ik and whose second language was English.”
Murray lived in Quinhagak for four years, teaching four grade levels his first year and then promoted to principal while he continued to teach the remaining three years. Murray integrated art in to his lessons, shipping his own kiln in to teach students to make ceramics. He also taught illustrating and writing.
In 1974, the Murrays moved to the community of Nunapitchuk; a Yup’ik village located 30 miles west of Bethel on the Kuskokwim River Delta. Murray worked in a state-established high school, helping to establish a new bilingual program and again incorporating art into his curriculum. Murray encouraged his students to write, which eventually led to the publication of “Cama-I,” a series of stories written and edited by the students that was published by Doubleday.
“The students wrote stories and did interviews, including ones collected from different regions,” Murray said. “They edited the stories for publication, and when the book was sent to the publisher, the one phone in the village was the only means of communication between the students and the publisher in Boston.”
For the next eight years, Murray was a teaching principal for elementary through ninth grade and later, the high school principal. Two more children were born into the family, and Murray attended summer school to complete his master’s degree in education.
In 1981, he moved to Bethel and taught first grade for two years. He then served as an elementary school principal for 10 years. There, he met and married Martha.
In 1994, Murray was offered the position of principal at Voznesenska; a Russian Old Believer community. So, he and Martha moved to Homer.
“From Bethel, I shipped 250 boxes to Homer, as well as a truck with stuff in the back of it, which I drove down from Anchorage,” he said. “When I got to Homer, I went to the post office and Mrs. Eason was at the counter.”
Seeing all the boxes Murray had to pick up, Eason called her husband, her daughter and her daughter’s boyfriend, who all showed up with a station wagon and trucks to load and transport Murray’s boxes to the house.
“And then, they helped unload at the house,” Murray said. “This was my introduction to the caring community of Homer.”
For the next four years, Murray taught part-time at Voznesenska, while also acting as principal both there and at Kachemak Selo.
“The community of Voznesenska made me feel like a part of an extended family,” Murray explained. “Martha and I were not a part of the local culture, but we felt very welcome and I felt appreciated for being there as the principal.”
In 1998, Murray retired from teaching and set out to further nurture his creativity. He joined the Homer Community Choir, which led to singing in Carnegie Hall; traveling to Italy to sing in major cathedrals; and performing in concerts in Homer. An active member of the Homer Ukulele group, Murray is also a music liturgist for the Catholic church, and sings and plays guitar and ukulele for various events around town.
Murray is a member of the Kachemak Bay Watercolor Society and has participated in group and solo exhibits in Homer and annual shows in Anchorage. His work is shown year-round at Homer’s Fireweed Gallery and the Kenai Arts Center.
This November, his watercolor painting “Open” — depicting a little store in Seldovia — won first place at the Kenai Fine Arts Center Watercolor Group annual juried watercolor exhibition.
“I love the process of creating work,” Murray said. “Doing is as important as the end result. I like having an idea and being able to express it; creating it from what I see in my surroundings. I love color and I get excited to mess around with paints.”
For Michael Murray, happiness and fulfillment come from being a lifelong learner; open to new ideas and concepts, accepting others’ opinions and beliefs and sharing from his own experiences.
It also comes from family; he’s a grandfather to eight children. And, it comes from living in a community that inspires and supports him.
“Homer has a very diverse population in terms of backgrounds, experiences and talents,” Murray said. “Jim Hornaday’s song about the ‘Little Town of Homer’ pretty much sums it up.”
Hornaday’s lyrics tell how “churches and bars, hippies and ‘rednecks’ join in hand-in-hand to help people out when they need it.”
“This is what community means and I like that,” Murray said. “Being from the Midwest, we didn’t hug much. Homer taught me to hug often and feel good about it.”
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