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by Peggy Helmick-Richardson
In Murray Stein’s hands, simple pieces of wood are transformed into colorful messengers of lighthearted mirth as well as deep-seated philosophy. The array of natural reds, browns, blacks, whites and greens provide rich proof of his amazing wood artistry as well as epitomize the complexity of the man who united them.
"I try to use symbology in everything I make," Murray notes, explaining the layers of different colored woods used in the mezuzah by his front door. "The wood is from every corner of the world. It represents the Diaspora—the scattering of the Jewish people, and the unification of the people, no matter where they are."
This Allen artist has earned accolades and awards for his creations, including the recent first place for his "Lest We Forget" at this year’s 25th Anniversary Texas Sculpture Association show hosted at the ArtCentre of Plano. Murray considers this recognition one of his more meaningful because "the exhibitors themselves selected the winners." His wood sculpture of two pair of hands, one adult and one small child, behind bars was created as a Holocaust memorial and has been displayed at several observances. Upon completion of their new building, this work of art will be placed at the Dallas Holocaust Museum.
Murray has proved to be a man with a passion for life as well as art. His accomplishments have been lauded by his long-time home state Maryland for many years, and he is now making a name for himself in the North Texas art community. He and Carol, his wife of 15 years, moved to Allen four years ago to be closer to grandchildren Danielle and Josh, students respectively at Ford Middle School and Story Elementary School.
Born in "in the shadow of Yankee Stadium," Murray points out that one of his proudest youthful achievements was being admitted to The Bronx High School of Science as a high school freshman. Sadly, he only attended this prestigious institution for 10 days. This was in 1941, toward the end of The Great Depression, and because of a lack of jobs in New York City, his father had to move his family to Washington, D.C. when he was offered employment at the government printing office.
After graduating from high school in 1944, Murray served three years in the U.S. Army. By the time his basic training at Fort Gordon, Georgia, was complete, the war in the Pacific had ended. "I got out of the service in 1947 and never left the states," he shrugs.
He then enrolled at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and two years later, at the age of 22, received his bachelor of science in electrical engineering with a specialty in communications. He accomplished this impressive feat by taking 21 to 22 credits per semester and attending summer school sessions. Over a 14-year period he also took all the required course work at the University of Maryland for his PhD but never had the opportunity to complete his thesis.
Murray’s first job out of college was a nine-year stint with the Federal Bureau of Standards. It was here that he first started working with computers, designing peripheral systems such as a high-speed card reader.
For the next three years, Murray worked for a research facility owned by the Department of the Navy. There he was employed in the computer lab investigating ship propulsion characteristics. Following this, he worked two years for a company designing a four-computer system for a flight simulator as part of the Apollo Space Mission.
He then worked with another company in satellite communications and computer peripherals before returning to a federal position, this time with the General Services Administration. He retired from the GSA in 1982 at the age of 54. Laughing, he explains that he discovered an incredibly unusual and narrow window of opportunity to meet the requirements that would allow him to retire early. Not one to be easily deterred, he jumped through all the necessary hoops in four days, just barely making the deadline.
Murray was also employed on a contract basis with George Washington University since 1976, where he taught continuing education classes on electrical engineering for engineers working in other disciplines. He continued teaching for GWU until six years ago, eventually offering instruction on 16 different electrical engineering/computer-related topics.
In addition to conducting classes at the Washington, D.C., campus, he also taught at off-site course centers and military bases across the United States and abroad. Describing himself as a "serious amateur photographer" and "fascinated by all things ancient," he often took advantage of these trips and stayed afterward to do some personal exploration.
Describing Japan as a "marvelous, marvelous country," Murray had the opportunity to travel there twice in 1980 for GWU. "Education is so important to them that the elderly and teachers are at the top of the ladder," he points out. Because he was there as a teacher, one of his young students led him on a two-week tour of the country. Murray found himself most drawn to the "provincial" areas like Kyoto and the ancient temples.
Long interested in archaeology, the spark became a flame when he went on a personal "Roots-like trip" to Israel two years earlier. "I wanted to learn about where my family came from, and wanted to see where my Mom was born and where she grew up, and meet my cousins. My mom was born in Jerusalem and I still have a very large number of cousins there," he states. "My mom used to tell me about Jerusalem—where she lived, played and went to school."
"I also wanted to touch the Jaffa Gate, the Lion’s Gate, the Damascus Gate, because my grandfather helped restore them," he continues, explaining that his grandfather was a blacksmith hired by the Turkish regime in control of the area at that time to restore four of the gates in the Old City walls of Jerusalem.
Eventually Murray visited Israel seven times.
In 1979 and 1980, he traveled to Egypt. The first trip included visits to the Sinai Peninsula and Santa Katerina, and offered him "the opportunity to trace the most probable route of Moses."
The second visit to Egypt was part of a visit that also included Jordan and Israel for the purpose of planning a later tour for Catholic Travel Service.
During this second Egyptian trip Murray was fortunate to serendipitously find a guild who also worked for the Cairo Museum. This unexpected connection resulted in his gaining access to areas in Karnak, The Valley of the Kings, Abu Simbel, the Pyramids, the Sphinx and Luxor that few have seen. Murray shares that it was at the latter where he was allowed to take a photograph of the earliest known painting depicting the Last Supper of Christ. This almost invisible mural was found in an isolated area in the temple complex, and he explains that experts theorize it was painted by an early Coptic Christian, circa 300 CE, who had fled to that area seeking protection from Roman persecution. He also had the chance to photograph other normally restricted areas including the chamber where King Tut’s sarcophagus was found.
During the Jordan leg of this trip, he visited the famed archaeological site Petra, designated one of the Seven Modern Wonders of the World. He describes this ancient city as "the most fascinating place I ever visited. It’s temples and tombs, some 15 stories, are massive bas-reliefs cut into the sides of steep-walled rock canyons."
Sadly, the tour Murray was to lead for this Catholic organization never came about because of the unrest occurring in the Middle East at that time.
Through his adventures in Israel, his knowledge of the history and archaeology of Jerusalem eventually led to an article by him being published in Biblical Archaeology Review. He explains that his story’s topic was "how Herod’s masons moved 450 ton blocks of stone to place them in the famous Western Wall." Murray goes on to explain that his theory was based on some of his personal discoveries, such as the odd-shaped stones he found in a tunnel next to the Western Wall.
Some of Murray’s treasured adventures in Israel include seeking and gaining permission from the Islamic religious authority to go inside the Dome of the Rock, a shrine and the oldest existing Islamic building, and Al-Aqsa Mosque, a place considered one of the holiest sites of Islam, to take photographs. Both structures are located on the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest sites and where Solomon’s Temple is thought to have once stood. He also visited Solomon’s Stables, so named because the Crusader’s quartered their horses there. This vaulted area, assumed to have been put in place by King Herod is beneath the southeast courtyard of the Temple Mount and consists of twelve rows of pillars and arches.
As he amassed both photographs and travel experience, Murray put the two together and began presenting programs on the places that he has traveled. For the Allen Public Library he has presented programs on Petra and Egypt. He returns to the Allen Public Library 7 p.m. Monday, December 15, to discuss "Jerusalem and the Three Monotheistic Religions."
But travel wasn’t the only vocation Murray explored after retiring from his federal job. He also became an active volunteer.
Through the years, he racked up thousands of hours for the Rockville Senior Center and served on the City of Rockville Senior Citizen’s Commission. He also chaired the county library’s Bookmobile Advisory Council, and as a member of the United Seniors of Maryland he lobbied on both the state and national level for legislation that would benefit the U.S. senior citizen population. In addition, he chaired the marketing committee for George Washington University, helped found the Senior Artist Alliance, and headed up the adult education program at his temple.
The volunteer experience he describes as "most rewarding" was the two years spent teaching art to third, fourth and fifth graders from the Rosemont School in Gaithersburg, Maryland. The children he worked with here were from low-income families and many had learning challenges and minimal English skills. His students’ drawings were converted to Christmas cards and get well cards for wounded Iraqi veterans at Walter Reed and Bethesda Naval Hospitals. "My art students learned something much more important than new art skills," Murray points out. "Without even realizing it, they learned a valuable life lesson—the importance of giving and the importance of doing something for total strangers."
Murray adds that this project was arranged through the Connection Resource Bank in Maryland, an organization that "matches the skills of the volunteers to the academic needs in the public schools." He hopes to inspire the creation of a similar organization in this area as well as encourage other senior citizens to get involved in public school volunteer service. "If other seniors knew about the incredibly good feelings I experienced at Rosemont, I believe they would jump right in."
Since moving to Allen in 2004, Murray and Carol have presented children’s programs demonstrating how common household items can be used to make music at the Allen Public Library every Christmas holiday. This same program has also been shared at a local children’s hospital and the Central Dallas Public Library.
Two years after moving to Allen, Murray was the recipient of the Distinguished Senior Award for 2006, awarded to him by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare for his involvement in the arts and his help founding the Seniors Artist Alliance.
Murray discovered his talent for wood-turning and sculpture when he joined a senior citizen center in Maryland 19 years ago. "They had a beautifully equipped [woodworking] shop, so I started doing stuff," he notes. "But I got bored and wanted to do something more challenging." Then he read a magazine article about a unique style of woodworking called segmented turning and soon the wheels in his head were spinning as quickly as the lathes in the woodworking shop.
As his skills with wood-turning grew, so did his recognitions. Murray was pleased that his work was lauded for its beauty, but he also aimed for philosophical significance in his creations.
The array of woods Murray rely on for his creations vary from brightly colored species from Africa and South America to fallen branches he finds along the roadside and discarded wood scraps from construction sites. He has even recycled mahogany from a ruined piano that had been discarded. Although he appreciates the unique patterns and colors the different kinds of wood offer, Murray adamantly opposes using wood from endangered species and only rarely utilizes those of exotic trees. "I try to minimize that stuff," he emphasizes. "What I get from Brazil and Peru is mostly considered junk, those that are prolific."
Murray has a fondness for spalted wood. He explains that the unique patterns created from spalting are simply the result of fungal growth in the wood as part of an early stage of decomposition. The result is one-of-a-kind pieces with often-beautiful patterns and mottling.
As a whole, Murray’s wood sculptures defy being categorized. They run the gamut from whimsical to spiritual, ultra modern to a nod to the more traditional. Some are made from a single piece of wood, and other sculptures are created by piecing different woods together in intricate patterns. His 20-inch diameter sombrero, awarded the Champion prize in Arts and Crafts at the Montgomery County Fair in Maryland this past August, has over 1,100 pieces of wood from a dozen different species. Incorporating his engineering background and playful spirit with his love of woodwork, Murray has created several UFOs, some with blinking lights, the ability to hover in mid-air, and reciprocal rotation.
Having an appreciation for classical music, Murray has produced several musical-themed pieces, including his six-foot tall "Suspended " with a representative instrument for strings, woodwind, brass and percussion. This work now hangs in the offices of the Plano Symphony Orchestra, and he is currently creating another piece, a tribute to Schubert’s Trout Quintet, for the performance hall of the planned arts park of the Arts of Collin County.
His love and appreciation for traditional Native American pottery serve as inspiration for many of Murray’s sculptures, including his "Serenity" that was displayed at the Blacrock Arts Center in Germantown, Maryland, for Native American Heritage Month and featured in the Spring 2003 issue of American Woodturner magazine.
A tour of the Stein home, a showcase to the creative skill of this Allen artist, may leave a visitor with the question "What didn’t Murray make?".
The wall units that house many of the wood sculptures, the secretary’s desk of cherry and oak that is a scaled-down replica of another made in 1760, and even the tall case clock inspired by one on display at Colonial Williamsburgh are all his creations. Of the latter, Murray laughs that it is probably the only tall case clock that can be carried in a VW Beetle. This is because he constructed it in well-fitted pieces that can easily be taken apart and put back together. But he didn’t stop there with his adaptations from the original. He couldn’t resist the opportunity for additional embellishment and carved the face of the clock, added fret work to the sides and raised panels on the door, and placed an intarsia design of raised maple and ebony on the base front.
Through the years, Murray has received many recognitions and acknowledgements for his artistic skills. Not only has he received accolades in both his Maryland and Texas communities, Murray was invited to lecture on and demonstrate segmented wood turning at the Smithsonian Institute’s Renwick Gallery twice in 2002. He also was the recipient of the first Path of Achievement Award in the Arts and Humanities category in 1999, presented at Strathmore Hall in Bethesda, Maryland.
Not one to pass up opportunities for new fun, Murray even boasts skills to impress the pet owner. He has taught their two cats Snowball and Precious his own form of sign language. He did this initially because he feared the possibility of Snowball becoming deaf. But even though that concern proved to be unfounded, he continues to sign to his cats just for the fun of it. Murray even boasts that Snowball is good at math. To demonstrate, he asks the white- and apricot-colored cat "What is the square root of 64?" He then makes a motion with his hand, instructing the cat to wind itself around his legs, making a figure 8. Murray just shrugs and grins.
Each moment of humor and each time of serious contemplation are just colorful pieces intricately aligned in the pattern of Murray’s life.
To see more of Murray’s wood sculpture and furniture and read his comments about the creation of each piece, go to his web site http://woodizgood.deviantart.com/