Photographer and poet Mwangi Arthur Murrell is a living inspiration to those who have had the pleasure of hearing his story. Whether he is snapping pictures, encouraging at-risk youth or performing comedy and poetry around Indy, he always manages to put a smile on the faces of those he interacts with.
As a child and young adult, Murrell was not quite so optimistic. Because of his speech impediment and dyslexia, teachers and other adults told him his future would be bleak, and Murrell took those words to heart.
“Most of my early schooling, I sat in special ed classes. My teacher called us dumb, stupid and ignorant. At one point one of the teachers told my mother I would never be able to function in society,” said Murrell.
His elementary school teachers never taught him to read, so he learned about the world around him through images. Murrell would collect pictures from newspapers and magazines. He developed an interest in Black history after viewing photography about the subject. When he started high school, he tried to hide his reading problem from his teachers and avoid other students. Despite his attempts at lying low, Murrell often faced disciplinary actions from teachers who saw him as a troublemaker.
“The kids would make fun of me at school and say, ‘I will punch you.’ My teachers were telling me not to punch them, so I just had to deal with it because, if I hit them back, they would call my mother to the school. A lot of time, the teacher would take the side of the other kid,” said Murrell.
But there was one teacher who Murrell felt was on his side. She stopped him outside of class one day asked him to read a book for her to evaluate his skills.
“I hadn’t learned the basics of reading or English, and it was very difficult for me to have classes. I was telling her what it said without reading it. She asked if I could read and I said no. She said, ‘Oh my dickens, I am going to make sure you make the most of your time here,’” he said.
This teacher became his mentor. While others dismissed him, she would encourage him to stay positive and better himself, referring him to an outside tutoring program that was held at the Christamore House. Murrell credits that teacher and a host of other adult influences as the reason he never gave up on himself when others set limitations for him.
“I didn’t know the fundamentals of English until I was getting out of high school, but my parents never gave up on me. My parents and relatives motivate me. My mother was a very smart and determined person. My grandmother had her own business and 200 acres of land in the ’50s. She grew her own food and crops. I look at my uncles, the way they conducted themselves, the way they dressed,” said Murrell.
He also credits members of the clergy for encouraging him spiritually throughout his life and helping him develop a positive perspective. After graduating high school, he continued his tutoring sessions at the Christamore House and started to cultivate an interest in photography.
“I always had a fixation with pictures because I couldn’t read. I developed an inherent thirst for art. I went downtown in the ’70s and bought a camera, and I didn’t know nothing about cameras,” said Murrell, adding that he has done photography for various community organizations including Indiana Black Expo. When he was an Ivy Tech student, he started a photography club to network with others who shared his interests. Today, he spends his time practicing photography and encouraging young people who are struggling in school to not give up.
“I sit and talk to them and say you can not give up on learning. I tell kids who don’t have those challenges that they need to protect the other kids who do. When I tell a story, some people who don’t have these challenges do not pick it up, but those who do … know the story is for them,” said Murrell.
Murrell’s main goal as an artist is to encourage other people to follow their dreams beyond the limits others set for them. He has some words of encouragement for those who feel directionless.
“God don’t make no accidents. You are here for a reason. Your road may be difficult, but there is more at the end. If you only look at where you are now, you’ll never go anywhere,” said Murrell. “I chose to make a difference in my life, and I found people who supported me. A host of people in my church and community were behind me through it all. I saw that these people loved me, and I started not to doubt myself.”