Imitating Life: Posing questions to artist Marka Burns

“Spring Awakening,” mixed media

“Spring Awakening,” mixed media

Cory Bilicko
Managing Editor

What distinguishes Marka Burns from the majority of artists I profile in this weekly column is her amount of experience. Not only is her work displayed in a number of corporate and private collections, she has coordinated exhibits at Barnsdall Art Park in Los Angeles, The George Eastman House in New York, Long Beach City College and the University of California Riverside. She earned a bachelor of fine arts from the Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) in 1968 then studied painting while living in Munich, Germany and Oslo, Norway until 1971. She returned to California in 1973 and studied at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), where she received a master’s of fine arts in 1976.

Burns was a faculty member in the art department/art education at CSULB for 32 years, teaching a variety of classes and disciplines. The majority of the last two decades she has spent preparing art-education majors to teach art at the middle- and high-school levels. She continues to mentor and supervise student teachers in several local school districts.
As for her own work, she is drawn to using an array of materials.
“I have always enjoyed the unexpected outcomes and possibilities provided by working with collage and mixed media,” she said. “I have always been drawn to experimenting with a variety of materials even when I discover it wasn’t very successful. It is always fun to break the rules. I discovered that working in this way I could, in Picasso’s words, ‘create and destroy.’ This way of thinking allowed me to be bold and actually enjoy the process of tearing up something and waiting for it to assume another form. Recently I have been working with encaustic wax processes, photography, paint and other materials. My work currently on view at the Long Beach Playhouse shows a number of techniques and materials that I worked with in the two series now on view.”
Her exhibit Allegory of Spirit in Nature is currently on display at the Long Beach Playhouse, 5021 E Anaheim St., where it will run through Sunday, Nov. 30.

When did you start making art? What kind of art was it?
I started to identify myself as an artist while attending Wilson High School. I was the art editor of my high school yearbook and had the opportunity to take special courses at CSULB with a few other Wilson students. I was encouraged by my art teachers to become an art major. During my senior year, I worked on my portfolio so I could go to the Chouinard Art Institute.
During my college career I was exposed to many wonderful and well known artists and teachers at Chouinard and later at CSULB. Being exposed to why people make art was an awakening for me that has been part of my creative process ever since and a value that I have shared with my students.

“Behind the Veil,” mixed media

“Behind the Veil,” mixed media

Why do you make art?
I make art because I have something to say that is unique to my experience of the world and that I want to share with others. I love working with a variety of materials and in all that “mess” out comes something you didn’t expect!
While I was an undergraduate at Chouinard, I began to have the words to express the excitement that one has when the meaning of what you are creating connects to the visual image you are making.
If I had to describe what happens to me, it is a time of agitation, confusion and dread that it won’t work out. Then seemingly without effort, I am rewarded by the a-ha moment which is rather euphoric and joyful. This is especially true when working on a series; it is satisfying how the whole process comes together in a cohesive and meaningful way.
I began to realize that the study of art provided experiences that made the world make sense. There is the sheer excitement of what you created didn’t exist before you made it and that work is not only an expression of your creativity but part of a larger discussion on “What is art?” and why that is an important question.
As an art teacher I realized this was an important and powerful concept to communicate to students. This realization that acquiring the basic language and tools of art gives one access to why art exists, culturally, socially and individually.
Ultimately, I value my contribution to students and how they come out of a course not only with more confidence and empowerment but with a new understanding of the role of art in their lives and how it is reflective of society in and through time.
I feel I have impacted many of my students’ lives, and I have heard from many over the years. They tell me that that the thinking, learning, and problem-solving processes they were exposed to had a profound effect on them. Mostly they feel it is worthwhile, even with the budget cuts and uncertainty, that they teach art in their classroom and that is gratifying and a validation that what I did was important.
“Duality of Nature,” mixed media

“Duality of Nature,” mixed media

If, for some reason, you could no longer create art, what would you do?
I have always had a love of archaeology, antiquity and art history, so I might have done any one of those things but that would ultimately [have] found me in a classroom teaching one of those subjects.
Ultimately, There are very few things I would do if I couldn’t create art or teach.

I feel I have had a wonderful career both in the classroom as well as the studio. Teaching has clarified why I make art. My opportunity to teach about the relationships between the arts has led to many personal insights about my role and purpose in the world. Teaching aesthetic philosophy was one of my most satisfying teaching experiences. It allowed me to engage students, asking fundamental questions unique to the arts. Today it is rare that one can engage in a subject that has few answers but provokes interesting and insightful questions. I continue to bring these insights to my current job of supervising and mentoring student teachers at the middle- and high-school level.

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