Recently, I’ve taken to interviewing artists by phone late into the evening. Knowing that the greater majority of us are night owls anyway and understanding that we live in a world of divergent opposites where ramblings often lead to insightful truths, I find an hour’s conversation is very much illuminating for where an artist has been, presently is, and hopes to be (in whatever aspect one choses to relate to).
When I spoke with artist and educator Marlene Burns in 2017 at an unmentionable hour, I wasn’t surprised to find her absolutely prepared to gush about her own art history, lessons learned along the road, decisions she’s made for herself, and her successful, present challenge to balance two loves.
Burns is a professional artist and Hebrew educator in Northwest Tucson. She currently has an ongoing series of Judaic paintings that examines some of the traditional blessings, prayers, proverbs, psalms and holidays, each with an accompanying text. She formed her company Kavanah Press to work with organizations for fundraising, art acquisitions for permanent collections, gifts, and reasonably priced prints and cards.
Burns is also an artist who immediately makes it clear just how long she has been at this calling, this artist’s way, complete with a BA and MFA and seasoned with an initial apprenticeship in sanctuary art. She comes ready with artist statements, lists of exposure, and then of course, her group of 24 original acrylic paintings to share – a part of her Sacred Intentions series.
The Judaic series is about connections. Burns serves as a lay leader in her community and is trying to help people make connections to their prayer experiences. In a long history stemming from the 1960s, about 13 years ago she moved from Scottsdale to Tucson, Arizona and now says she just dreads going into the big city, though she does so regularly. Her first-ever gallery representation was in Santa Fe back in the 1980s.
“Santa Fe is just one of those places that opens up my heart and soul when I visit.”
I had originally contacted Marlene because I was instinctively drawn to the artful blend of her urban abstract photography and her color field explorations. I wanted to talk with her about how issues of displacement figured into her work, either through cultural displacement resulting from her Jewish ancestry, or regional displacement in terms of the many Native American tribes in the Southwest.
But she declines, saying she has no cultural displacement connections, other than the three-year period where construction was occurring outside her home. One day when she had just about enough of the noise, she went outside to shoot a photograph of part of a tractor. That photo eventually became the hybridization of photographs and paintings, now amassing well into the tens of thousands of mobile phone shots she’s collected as potential launching points in a process she calls deconstructing and reconstructing in her Urban Abstract series.
“My urban abstracts (which have a fascinating origin that I’m blogging about) are at best, representative of physical earth being displaced due to a three-year construction zone in front of my home where the road was widened 3 lanes and dropped 4 feet. The equipment and machinery made for outrageous abstract images and once I started to combine them, these urban compilations took on a life of their own.”
We spoke about how one’s perspective changes over time. In commenting about today’s marketplace, Burns said she believes younger people are largely contemporary buyers, especially the California millennials with ample pockets and perhaps less cultivation experience. However, she notes a wide divide between that group and the elder group she mentors in a community religious exchange. As people age, they become more serious and more invested. There’s a significant attempt to find meaning, and in many cases, to play catch-up with life’s endeavors. And while she credits religious meaning as being a holistic salve, she confesses that at times with her own meditative work, religion sometimes got in the way of her painting effort when she couldn’t clear her head of the text.
Now, she sets purposeful intentions with prayer and proverb, and often listens to transformative music like Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (she likes the K.D. Lang rendition) or the apparent Streisand nod to cantillations of the Torah. She laughs now, thinking of it. No one truly supported her endeavor to be solely an artist in her youth, and her grandparents only spoke Yiddish to her to ensure her proper education. She’s grateful now for those experiences because she sees those seeds as culminating full circle, especially as she explores abstract expressionism absent idol worship. In the true Jewish tradition, one does not paint an object. One paints with the authentic heart.
I asked Burns about her studio process. While she used to paint every single day, especially in her early career when she was doing portraiture, life’s demands have recently limited her time. She said she always painted standing at her easel or with a canvas on the floor, and only recently has taken to sitting down at the computer to merge image files. She notes too, how her studio practice has changed from meeting the demands of high-end interior designers to exploring sacred inspiration. And, she says, there is always the group of canvases in the corner waiting for paint-over. Her children have been warned not to ever sell those because they weren’t INTENDED as such. If I had lived another day, she muses, they would have become something else.
“I don’t worry about the local art scene. Local business is not my concern. In Santa Fe alone, there are something like 300 galleries on Canyon Mile Road. I look for the right fit. My art speaks to a certain collector, a particular patron, and if there isn’t a match, I don’t worry about it. I’m no longer concerned with trends or even about making money. That’s not my concentration.”
However, she expresses grave concern for today’s young artists and the ability to communicate a visual image’s meaning into words.
“We live in a land of words. You must be able to articulate what you intended. This is one of the reasons I keep a record for my Urban Abstracts Blog and for the Judaic Series Blog . It is a claiming process, of setting forth the intention, the meaning, the design, the parameters. I tell you, if you’re lucky enough today to have a little bit of talent, any kind of following, and can basically pay your bills, you’re very blessed indeed. But you best be able to TELL people what you’re doing and why, and this idea that an artist just slaps some paint on a canvas and calls it kismet, is the inability to recognize that creativity is a spark of the divine. It is also an inability to know the rules, and then to step forward and say, ‘Yes. And I challenge that.’”
This article was originally published June 15, 2018. Shauna Lee Lange (@shaunaleelange on Twitter) is a full-service art advisor, researcher, and writer for sacred spaces and public places and focuses on the intersections of interfaith art, culture, and placemaking.