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An Interview with Artist Marlene Burns

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Why interview artists?  and why Marlene Burns?

There are many artists who enjoy working with abstraction, and for a variety of reasons.  It’s difficult not to note how many of the very famous abstract artists, the household names,  started as phenomenally skilled and creative representative painters.   There is a deep truth about form and formalism, art and abstraction tucked away somewhere in the progression of many talented painters from representation towards increasing abstraction.

In my own opinion the best paintings do more than simply please the eye.  They communicate something potent and subtle to the viewer.  These “pictures” tell stories worth many thousands of words.   The stories aren’t necessarily narrative tales either.  They can be the social and political messages that are very present in much of Contemporary 2-dimensional art (and which I often find rather simplistic and flat).  These stories can also be playful challenges to how we see, perceive, and categorize art and our environments.

Sometimes the message is personal and spiritual, tying the artist and viewer to a unique experience of a deeply felt and treasured cultural experience and tradition.  Sometimes great art is that moment when the message from artist to the world becomes a dialogue between the art and a viewer; that magical spark of recognition where we can see that something is deeper and wider than its visual beauty.

Abstract artist Marlene Burns has explored a number of styles and ideas throughout her successful career as a professional artist.  What fascinates me about her abstract work is her distinct style and message.  Her style carries imprints of all of the artistic ideas she’s explored throughout her career.  Her message transmutes these stylistic elements into abstract expressions as graceful as a dance, and allusive as raked sand.

Lately she has been exploring photography as an independent medium and as an element in hybrid works combining photography and painting.  Some of her hybrids can be seen in the video above.

I’ll let her tell you some more about her work in her own words, through the following interview.

Interview with Marlene Burns

1. You seem like a very smart person who had many options in life. When and how did you know that you wanted to be an artist?

I was most fortunate to have been raised by parents who encouraged me to pursue and study all of the arts, whether it was art, music, theater or dance.  I was heavily involved in lessons and programs in all of those areas throughout my childhood and teen years.  Although my sights were set on dance, I switched my course to art, for practical reasons. I was one of those fortunate few who had mentors from day one, in my public school art teachers. They were true artists, who had figured out what they had to do to be able to lead a passionate and expressive life…and all the while, inspiring the next generation by example.  I had no fear of being a starving artist, ever.

2. Did you have a favorite medium when you started? How has your relationship to your media changed over the years?

Starting out as a painter, my medium was oils. Was it my ‘favorite’? Not by a long shot! To this day, I can conjure up the smell of turpentine.  My memories are filled with taking two buses to school on Friday, critique day, with a wet canvas in tow….trying so hard not to bump into people or ruin my clothing. I used to tape a hanger on the back of the stretcher bars, just to be able to carry it and still have one arm left to juggle my books, purse and lunch!

I chose a college that offered traditional art training.  The influence of Pollack had permeated many programs at college level by the mid 60’s.  I had far too much to learn at that point, to intelligently jump into abstract expressionism, so I opted for a strong foundation to include art history and exposure/experience in all disciplines.

As a sophomore, my painting professor introduced me to a new plastic paint, acrylics!  Ok, well, he didn’t exactly introduce me, he forced me to change over from oils. He claimed that unless I slowed down, oils would always fight my process. 

The transition was methodical, since acrylics do not handle, nor mix the same way as oils. I was only allowed to use payne’s gray, white and black for the first month of studio classes (that was 3, 3 hour studios per week)For each of the following months, I was permitted to add one color.  Back in the day, there were only the basic colors available, so I had made the conversion by the end of that year. I also loved cleaning up with mere water!

I have never looked back.  My professor was spot on…. I needed acrylics to suit the speed with which I paint.  Out here in Arizona, the paint often dries too fast, even for me, so I keep a spray bottle of water close by!

In the last 15 years, I have dabbled with mixed mediums.  One of my staples is air brush ink, right of out the bottle, as well as molding paste, gesso, plastic, wood, metal fittings and hand made papers. I am a messy painter, starting with the canvas on the ground.  After I add everything, my process of elimination begins.

3. I notice more representational themes in your earlier work, including some strong visual references to the South West and Native American cultures. How did your representational work develop?

My earliest work was portraiture, still life and landscapes, as a result of my classical training. Once I was on my own, abstraction of a subject evolved naturally, but certainly not overnight.

When I moved to the Southwest, I prided myself in not becoming just another Southwest artist of mountains and such.  To say I was not going to be influenced by nature’s palette or American Indian culture, was very naive on my part.  The first subjects to grab me, were the Kachina dolls of the Zuni and Hopi tribes. They were so primitive.My contemporary posture to design was just screaming to reinterpret them while staying true to the ceremonial dress and power of each.  It was this series that was first picked up by the largest Southwest gallery system in the late 80’s.

As with most of my series, once I have explored a topic, I seem to purge it from of my system and I move on…..from Kachinas, I seguéd to the abstraction of birds and fish. 

4. When did you start focusing more on non-objective abstract art? Was the transition gradual or was it a clean break from an older body of work?

Before I answer this question, I need to change ‘non-objective’ to ‘non-recognizable subject.’     It happened during my years in that first gallery experience.  It was such a natural thing to happen for me as an artist whose expressions were developing and changing.  Based on my success with the gallery, I discovered that my paintings were being recognized and collected.  Could I have resisted changing? Perhaps.  Giving myself permission to continue growing was a pivotal decision in my career. I chose to be authentic.  I lost gallery representation.  The owner explained that  my collectors wanted more of the same.  I could not stay still for the sake of financial gain or recognition.  Even today, some 20 years after the fact, it is difficult to revisit that time.

In the end, I discovered that for myself as an artist, using a recognizable subject in my abstract work, was a crutch.  I had to fall off the proverbial tight rope, without a net, and it terrified me.

As with other decisions, I have never regretted or looked back.

5. How did you decide to focus on Judaica and spirituality in your recent painting series? There seems to be an undercurrent of spirituality in a lot of your earlier work too. What brought you full circle to your own personal cultural heritage?

I will be the first to admit that this was NOT a conscious decision.  I am also a lay religious leader and educator in the community.  About 3 years ago, I discovered that my head wasn’t clear enough to begin my daily process of expression. Most mornings , I was so filled with prayers, commentaries, songs, etc, that I could no longer clean it out in order to paint. Corny as it may sound, I asked for a sign, which came through loud and clear in my first painting of the Shema, the central prayer in Judaism. With the validation I needed, I now PUI (paint under the influence!)

These paintings have morphed into a hybrid of my two passions…a painting in conjunction with a teaching that presents itself in the explanation of my covert symbolism. So far, there are 22 paintings in the series I have entitled “Sacred Intention.”  All of the paintings with accompanying text, can be found at my website : www.KavanahPress.com

I truly have come full circle.  I apprenticed in sanctuary art at a stained glass art studio in Cleveland. At the time, I was hired to paint the portraits of Jesus and the Apostles, as well as creating all paintings needed to complement the windows in a specific space. What I learned, first and foremost, is that specific religion aside, a sense of spirituality is a driving force in an artist’s expression, one that not only moves the artist, but speaks to the viewer.

Most often, the comments I receive on this series, are from people who are deeply rooted in their own spirituality.

6. As someone who works often completely abstract styles, yet infuses them with meaning and resonance, I’d like to understand your views on abstraction in art. In your own words describe how you think about content and message in abstract art. What elevates abstraction beyod a purely decorative function? What part of the viewers mind, sensation, experience and emotion are you trying to address with your work? How do you know when you’ve succeeded?

Oh, man! You have finally asked the BIG question that has probably initiated the most controversy in the art world. Allow me to break it down into a few topics.

1.Abstract art: I like to keep it simple. My definition of abstraction is simplification of what is real….paring down to the essence of your subject.  My early birds are a prime example. Ultimately, on canvas, I was left only with ‘birdness’ and movement to express flight.

That said, a suitable subject can also be a feeling…that is where abstract expression makes its presence known. 

2.The importance of process, not product: An abstract expression cannot be preplanned or choreographed. I do not believe that an artist can successfully choose color, shape, movement, patterns and composition ahead of time when concentrating on the process of expression. The authentic expression will find its own means as the process unfolds. The only decision that must be made ahead of time is the canvas size.  Over the years, my preferred size is at least a 3 foot square…I like the compositional challenge of a square and smaller dimensions seem to hamper my expression. I paint big and sloppy.

3. Non-objective art: After all is said and done, if an artist is simplifying what is real, whether it is a bird or an emotion, it is never ‘non-objective’ from the artist’s frame of reference. It may not have an overt image, true, but an authentic expression is saying something about something.

Perhaps, I should back up here and qualify that statement to what I call serious work. Many artists, myself included, produce decorative art, whose only purpose is to look pretty, be pleasant, evoke nothing from the creator or viewer beyond being an adjunct to a nicely decorated space.

4. A viewer’s response: I have lived long enough to know that I have no control over another person’s reaction, response or perception.  I have also lived long enough to realize that control is probably just an illusion…but that is the subject for another interview!

I have discovered a few things…the general public doesn’t ‘get’ abstract art, nor does it hold abstract artists in high esteem. If I had a nickel for every time I have heard ” my kid could have done that…”

Well, maybe, but he didn’t.

Those that do ‘get’ it are most communicative as to why. Those dialogues energize me. The bottom line for me is MY need to  express. A viewer’s favorable response is a bonus, but not essential…just as a good product is a bonus to my process.  If I end a day of painting with a rough product, nothing about my process was compromised.  At very least, I have  great underpainting for the next day’s experience.

7. I notice you’ve been working a bit with photography, with a focus on abstract bits of the local AZ environment. How did this start? What inspired the currentspate of photographs? When you look at them all together do you find that they’re about more than the individual photos themselves? if so, care to elaborate or is it a secret?

Allow me to preface this answer by saying that I am not a photographer.  I am an artist, with an artist’s eye….good compositions jump out at me and I am merely recording them with a camera. 

Funny story as to how it started…I had quite a bit of traveling in my schedule last winter, with compromised time to paint in the studio.  When in New York, I decided to treat myself to a day of inspiration at MoMA.  As I exited the cab, on the busy street, I tripped and fell flat on my face onto a manhole cover.  Instead of fearing being run over by the oncoming traffic, my first thought was…”WOW! This manhole cover is gorgeous!”  The rest is history..I’ve been looking down ever since.  My neighborhood in Tucson is undergoing a tremendous amount of construction for the next three years.  The inconveninecess are obvious, but the perk is that I have the most amazing compositions, there for the taking, filled with spray paint markings, construction equipment and a variety of pilons and safety reflectors!

I have been making compilations of these images, whether as diptychs, triptychs or polytychs to create compositional challenges for myself.  I’m a confirmed insomniac, so this is a wonderful middle of the night activity.  My family is joining in. My daughter has chosen to look up with her images.  I just bought my granddaughter her first camera and her initial offerings are predominately abstract!

8. have you always made a living solely from art? What sort of creative approaches did you need to try to keep the bills paid? Did any of these feel like compromises at first, or was it all just positives and broader horizons? If any of them did feellike compromises or difficult choices at first, do they still seem that way now, or have all of your tangents found a way to enrich your work?

Yes. I picked up a teaching certificate to teach art and did so for 4 years. Although it was the ideal situation( being the first art teacher the school system had employed and I was able to write the curriculum,) it was exhausting.  I had no quality time to paint and moved out of the teaching arena as soon as I was confident that I could make it on my own.  The teaching experience afforded me the opportunity to teach the teachers and parents, by helping them understand that art is a valid form of expression. At the end of 4 years, I was teaching classes after school to the adults. At elementary school level, the best thing you can do for a child is to provide materials for artistic expressions. They are already naturals!

Getting the bills paid is a never ending concern.  I cannot afford to wait for a muse or until the feeling suits me. My art is my chosen profession and it behooves me to treat it as such.  I do not buy into the theory that an artist must be weird or temperamental.  In the real world, being consistent, dependable, being able to deliver a good product and presenting one in a professional manner, is a formula for success. In that same world, my bills reside!

Marketing is a big issue to be addressed. My advice is to plant as many seeds as possible, even in unlikely places…You never know when or how many seeds will pop up!

9. Any advice for young artists out there?

1.Be a sponge…soak up as much as you can.  Learn the basics in a formal art education setting or make use of the wonderful cyberworld now available. 

2.Do not ignore the rules until you have learned them.

3. Learn to be a critical thinker…your best critic is YOU.

3. Make a commitment to love what you do in life.  You will figure out how to make money doing it or, at very least, to support it.


18 Responses

  1. Vivian Anderson

    Congratulations on a great interview in this esteemed venue.

    • marlene burns

      thank you so much, vivian , not only for the congrats but for reading the interview!

  2. Mary Ellen Mueller Legault

    Very interesting!

  3. Kevin callahan

    It comes as no surprise Tom me that Marlene has an encyclopedic grasp of art and painting. Marlene Burns is a true treasure.

    • marlene burns

      you are so kind, kevin…i appreciate your glowing words…

  4. Teresa Fusco

    A true inspiration, I really enjoyed reading this interview, through this interview I now understand or acknowledge what I am feeling
    As an artist.

    • marlene burns

      teresa, at this point in my career, it is a joy to inspire other artists!!

  5. Christine Cooper

    Thank you Marlene for putting into perspective how the Spirit and the artist co-create together … great interview and interesting perspectives.

    • marlene burns

      my p[leasure, christine….kudos to regina for so expertly controlling the flow via her thought provoking questions!

  6. GregScott

    informative, evocative both in the questions and answers. A good read.

  7. maria disley

    Interesting interview. Firstly I was choked, reading about the availability of mentors and classical trainers and great education at an early age, made me realise what I have missed. As I read on, i felt admiration and a synomony with your creative urges, the admiration was for your determination, which your early training may have instilled in you, but nevertheless, you went for what you felt was most natural and important to you to be able to be true to yourself and your spiritual essence. love your abstract work. I felt inspired by the time i reached the end of the interview. :))

  8. Cricket Hackmann

    Marlene is a wonderful inspiration to me. Not only is she an amazing artist, she is very supportive of those who are coming up around her. I’m in awe of her ability to make a living through her art, while staying true to herself. I’m really glad to have “met” her, if only online. Great interview!

    • marlene burns

      cricket, i am humbled by your words….contact me ANYTIME!

  9. marlene burns

    i am thrilled, maria! we cannot change our early years, but we can keep reinventing ourselves, our talent and our direction!

  10. marlene burns

    thanks to regina, first and foremost for honoring me and my art with this interview. i am sure it will be the first of many interviews that will be worthwhile reads ( and inspiration!)
    to all my faa friends who left comments at the forum. i am no longer allowed to participate nor e mail, so please use this venue or my posted links to contact me. thank you!

  11. fran riley

    Great insight to your thought process for your work! Good advice too 🙂