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Talking Art with Marka Burns, Part Two: As a Career

This is the second-part of an interview with Marka Burns, president of the Long Beach Creative Group, a non-profit community-based organization. Marka shared with us about the origins of the Long Beach Creative Group, their vision, her journey as an artist, and the importance of art and its development in the community.

Marka Burns "Garden of Earthly Delights #3", 12" x 12", Painting of a pot of flowers in a various stages of blooming ad death. Orange background.
Marka Burns "Garden of Earthly Delights #3", 12" x 12"


LFL: It can be hard to make your career solely an artist. Most of us are half and half, or three quarters and such.

Marka: It terrifies parents that their children’s majors are art. Many, many artists go into teaching for that reason. They need to make a living, but they also have dedication to their students, or to the process. I was really meant to be a teacher. I loved every minute of teaching. At Cal State Long Beach. It was fascinating.

LFL: There's a specific calling to teaching. Do you have a medium that you prefer when working with art?

Marka: I think I'm best known for collage. Then I moved on, I'm really doing some digital collage now, which I really enjoy. You could look at my website.

LFL: I did. I looked through some of your artwork, actually. I love all the colors that you put together and the use of body with nature. It's kind of spiritual, to me at least.

Mixed Media Painting by Marka Burns. Woman in fetal position in foreground with tree growing above her. Large full moon is in background.
Mixed Media Painting by Marka Burns

Marka: I always have to have some sort of inspiration. I had just read a book called Mad Enchantment. It's about 800 pages, but it's about Monet's life. And about how the garden and the pond came about and et cetera, and so on. And his life as an artist. He was very difficult, actually. There was a part of the book that said, in romanticism, which was the era, they often thought there were... Monet kind of thought, there were nymphs in the pond. And they're basically 114 nymphs at the time that took care of different bodies of water. I was so fascinated. So, I went off on that theme of the nymphs in the water, and how he would go out every morning to the lily pond and sort of gaze into the water. And, I mean, it was a fantasy, but I turned it into a theme. I did maybe 20 paintings about that I wasn't doing digital. I guess they're part digital: collage and painting.

LFL: Oh, wow. I love your you know, connection I'm very much into water is a theme.

Marka: So? Oh, you're an artist?

LFL: Yes, although, you know, sometimes when you get to teaching your own practice gets a little, you know, quieter.

Marka: Well, I found it very hard to teach and to be an artist at the same time, however I still managed to create art. Now I always admire people or professors, who also maintain a really fabulous career in with galleries and collectors.

LFL: Absolutely, I would often find I was creating my own artwork by teaching, and spending all day making sort of through your demos that you'd come home and you'd be like, I made art. But as you know, around California things are expensive. So, finding a studio around here… oh, you might as well live in the studio. So that's one of the great things I know about being a professor or a high school teacher, sometimes you're allowed to create in those studios.

Marka: Well, life takes you on a journey that you don't expect.

LFL: Absolutely, you know, and I love that you've moved from tactile collage, and painting to the digital world too, because that just shows the progression of our current world. Like you said, in the past a lot of artists taught and worked, but now artists can be graphic designers and create their own artwork at the same time. It's another avenue that artwork can explore.

Marka: The thing that appealed to me, was putting them together as a hybrid of their own, absolutely digital. So oftentimes, I'll do the digital, and I'll print it, and then I'll put other collage on it. On the front piece, where there's a woman swimming, I don't think that that's the collage. But being around it, I would add, I would paint. I take a piece of something that I don't want to paint. I don't want to spend 800 hours painting your body in oils or acrylics, so I kind of cheated, people... I guess it is not cheating.

LFL: It was like that in the 70s 80s Pop Art. People took bodies and images from magazines. It's not a new concept.

Marka: I love the digital aspect of it. And I love the kind of process that I have to go through. It's really fun.

LFL: And that's the important thing I think about is art and developing kind of just growing and exploring new things. I love hearing about your development along the way. And just kind of learning because I know some people are still making the same artwork for the past 30 years.

Marka: Well, partly the problem is galleries want you to be they don't want you to deviate from what you're known for.

LFL: Yes, that's true, too, when you've got an image.

Marka: I am now into more abstract things. I had a show recently called hybrids. I got really into the idea. It always starts with an idea with me. What am I interested in? What if, you know, we get to the such a crisis with climate change, that plants start to actually deal with that, in a sense... I have a tree instead of just having apples on it. It has other kinds of fruit. You know, like it cross pollinates. And then it's stronger. It might survive.

LFL: I think I love how you're thinking about that I did a printing series once called Nautical Dissonance asking what will happen to the ocean? After humans have engaged with it for so long. I'm loving hearing your concept.

Marka: I love that you were doing something. We're looking at the ocean. And how, how is the ocean going to cope as a natural entity? How is it going to be able to heal itself?

LFL: I love your idea that trees and cross pollination and this nature. You can definitely hear your forward thinking. You talked about how people want you stuck in one thing from the past, because that's what they're used to. There's that big question that often artists have to ask is, is this worth making? Even if it's not going to sell? Or do I make it for the selling? What is your mindset when it comes to that?

Marka: Well, I don't make things to sell. If somebody wants to buy it, I'm very happy. But I'm not in the position where I could even depend on selling my art because basically, I'm just not motivated. I suppose if I was motivated, and looking at the way things are more egalitarian today. There are people in your age, for instance, that are making… they kind of said, We don't go along with this form of elitism of the gallery system. They're going and marketing their own art. And something who probably Warhol had something to do with. I don't think he would have had a problem with having a website and selling T shirts. But a lot of artists are way too, that's way too far away from what they want to be. I see a lot of younger artists, they've got merchandise, they've got their paintings, they've got prints, they've got a system.

LFL: I love your comparison with Warhol because it's definitely the whole concept of art being for the masses.

Marka: Exactly. I think he would like this.

LFL: You would?

Marka: What can you imagine what he would do?

LFL: Oh goodness, we'd have Marilyn Monroe on everybody's wall. And everybody's shirts. I mean, we do have reprinted it anyway... Campbell's tomato soup on your sofa.

Marka: And he just demystified art. I don't even know if that's a good word for it. But he kind of took the elite art world lightly say, from abstract expressionism, which was mostly male dominated. And very, you know, elite, and they would have galleries and it would be New York based to when we're all came up around this. He just blew that all up.

LFL: Yes, absolutely.

Marka: So, I don't think we'd be where we are today without him.

LFL: It's true. You know, and, like you say, I hope galleries don't become obsolete. I love what you're doing with them, Marka.

Marka: I don't think they realize that. I do think there's a lot of artists out there that are more entrepreneurial.

LFL: It's true, you know, and that's the way you make money as an artist.

Marka: The artists today just don't always want to [go digital]. They would love to be in a Big Gallery, and they would love the notoriety of being written up in an art magazine. But a lot of it has gone on to the internet. A lot of it has increased because of COVID.

LFL: And when you have more artists out there, like you said you got 400 submissions, it's harder to get into a gallery and let alone a museum.

Marka: I guess that's the point. Then somebody has to decide like a curator, or a writer. I used to teach my students how you could be in a gallery if you could get through the gauntlet of different things you have to get through you have to get art writers. You have to have them write about your work. You have to have a museum director say they're special, but it's a years-long process.

LFL: You have to know people. Networking is changing. I still remember making art involving transparencies and projector.

Marka: I can't imagine that you would have even been aware of that. But, oh how easy it is to do a PowerPoint today! And I remember having to go to the slide library. Slides, make the transparency. If I did it on a transparency, inevitably they'd all fall off the table. And they would be out of order. I mean, it takes a dime, to open up the carousel, and they all fell to the floor. I was terrible at all that.

Marka Burns, "Fashion Cat III", 8" x 10", Image of a Cat with dreamlike clouds superimposed over the face.
Marka Burns, "Fashion Cat III", 8" x 10"

LFL: It's true. But you know, there's pros and cons. I mean, there was something special about using transparencies, for collages and techniques like that.

Marka: Oh, you don't get anymore. Well, on the topic of scale, I think people have accepted everything in a small scale on a phone, on the computer, whatever. You never get the sense of what the real scale of the work is.

LFL: It's true. There's something majestic about standing in front of a 6-foot artwork.

Marka: It is, or 8- or a 10-foot tall.

LFL: Oh, my goodness. Yes.

Marka: Artwork that it's just is so spiritual. You walk closer and you see it come to nothing to replace that interaction. In real time. There's absolutely nothing to compare it.

LFL: No. I mean, I love it. The digital world made art more accessible to the majority of people and less elite-seeming though.

Portrait of Marka Burns
Marka Burns

Marka: One of the most important things I think, that people don't know or value, or they do value once they know about it, or the element teaching the basic visual vocabulary, yes. elements and principles of art. You can't look at art, if you don't know that vocabulary. No, I was excited to teach my lower division students who hadn't had much art. Maybe they didn't take any in school, but they might take a beginning class, and then mine was always: what are the elements and principles of art going to bring to you? What kind of "aha" moments are you going to have? How much easier is it going to be to create art without it being an accident? That you don't understand what you just did.

LFL: Even the most important part, if no one remembers anything else? I always say they remember the word focal point. For me.

Marka: So glad you say that. What we've given people there is they can get rid of some they can overcome some of their fear and prejudiced. Say about abstraction.

LFL: Abstract art can have focal points. People don't always realize that.

Marka: Oh, absolutely. And one of the biggest ones is repetition. I always use the analogy: What if you walked into a room, and there was only one red in the whole room and it was the pillow on the white couch? Where would your eye go? It would go to that pillow on the white couch. And then not be able to go to any of the other ones because there's no similarities.

LFL: That's such a lovely analogy.

Marka: It's kind of relatable because people often don't know scale of say a couch to a wall to helping the painting should be. I always love it when you go in to a house and above a big couch, they have an artwork that's about this big. So that's why we have interior designers. But if you give them the skills in art and then connect it to... In your real life, how are you going to use this vocabulary? It's not just on the painting. Now we can look at graphic design, we can look at photography, all of them have share this similarity. The elements, I would say the elements are, what it's made of, and the principles of our how it's organized. And then begin a lot of "aha" moments over the shape or space, where's the texture... And if they don't have that, they're just saying every now and then I get lucky.

LFL: I always say you can't break the rules until you know the rules.

Marka: Oh, that's a good one. That's really good. People have a real prejudiced against abstraction. Because if they can't recognize it, they tend to think they tend to dismiss it,

LFL: Or it's just viewed as decorative.

Marka Burns, "Ancient   World VII", 14" x 14", Collage of mixed media and textures. Dominant colors include blue, purple, and gold.
Marka Burns, "Ancient World VII", 14" x 14"

Marka: Yes, I think the failure to teach art history is so important, really, I think art history really enriches a person's life. And I always say, there is no history without art history.

LFL: It's true. It ties into everything, and I love when art history and music history go together. The Dada movement, most bizarre time of art, but seeing how they go together really explains it.

Marka: And brings in World War One, how come art changed? Well, it couldn't stay the same as it was in the 19th century.

LFL: Absolutely.

Marka: Artists are always saying it's a visceral response. Can't have romantic music when you have people, like in World War I first tanks that were, you know, it was very, I say dystopian all the time now, but it certainly was then.

LFL: I mean, if you think back then in the Western world, many artists and creatives work together. We had the writers, we had the musicians...

Marka: Absolutely right.

LFL: And they were all, you know, for colloquially hanging out together in the Western world, you know, we'll talk about you can talk about the rest of the world in different ways.

Marka: So you're very well aware of the Cafe Society of Paris.

LFL: Yes, you kind of have to view that in a broader sense. And I think, some people may know about literature, some people may know about music, or some people may know about art, but it's really wonderful. When it all ties together.

Marka: Well, ironically, I taught a class that was for Liberal Studies majors, but be teaching in elementary school. But I taught a pretty high-level class, which merged art, music, dance and theater. You say yes to something and go like, Oh, my God, I don't know. You know, this or that. So you have I had to put that class together, in my own way, it's just what you're talking about? None of the arts happen alone.

LFL: Absolutely.

Marka: There's a synergy of between all of them.

LFL: Yes. And we've talked so much about teaching, do you have a favorite class or topic that you've taught over the years?

Marka: Well, I did love teaching that art and values class I just told you about. I sometimes panicked. But I did it for 20 years. I would always change it. I get bored after a while. I have to, but teaching is learning too. It's a great opportunity to learn. So now I know a lot more about the other genres of art. I would say that was one of my favorites. And I like teaching beginning students. I really do. It's kind of like the gallery. It's kind of a ground floor thing. You're giving opportunities to students that they can see the world differently.

LFL: You get to see those "aha" moments right there happening over and over again.

Marka Burns, "Two Side to Every Story III", Collage of lacey imagery over a faded face.
Marka Burns, "Two Side to Every Story III"

Marka: Exactly. And I liked walking around the room and saying, so where's the focal point? And what do you see? Do you think you need to repeat something more? I love asking questions like, the work is on the wall. Doing a critique. I liked that. And I mostly asked them to apply the language to it. I also love teaching aesthetics, when pupils go: What is that? It's just a fascinating subject. There's a lot of art theory and aesthetics. There's all about aesthetic responses and where they came from. And I taught an awful lot with propaganda and how it was in the World War with the Nazis and how they propagandized against modernism. It's so weird about their fetish about art. And my students really love that. They also like there was nine areas of propaganda bandwagon, get on the bandwagon. How do you change people's minds? That's part of a teaching aesthetics, too. I did love teaching it.

LFL: It's time to think back about the past. I have had such a great time talking with you about the gallery and all these great ideas.

Marka: We could go on and on.

LFL: We could go on and on for so long.

Marka: I'm so impressed by you know, who you are. And that, you know, the path that you've taken. Come by the Long Beach Creative Art Gallery. We are open Friday, Saturday, Sunday, 1pm to 4pm.

LFL: I would love to visit and I definitely loved having this chat.

Marka: I'm impressed by your, your background, I really am.

LFL: I love the arts and that's where my degree lies. I just wanted to be and work in the community. And it's very hard to find community arts programs to engage with, which is why I love Able ARTS Work.

Marka: I think being affiliated with the art in the context that Able ARTS Work is, it must be very fulfilling to see the look on the faces of those who, you know, you work with.

LFL: I often view Able ARTS Work as the higher education path for people are unable to attend traditional tertiary education because of different boundaries. Some of our artists, I will teach a college level class and they will excel at it. I remember I taught a world art class and one artist was so inspired by Chinese Ink paintings, she went and did her version of a Chinese Ink painting on a role of canvas. The concepts of college, like we're talking about elements or principles, can be understood by our artists at Able ARTS Work.

Marka: I think what you're building is a real, beautiful space for artists who learn in different way, and they produce in a different way. But I think it's just the greatest work that anybody could do.

LFL: Thank you! We just create the opportunities, the artists provide the magic. And I love that you have a gallery space open to the community, because as an artist, I know how hard it is to be accepted into shows at galleries.

Marka: But we seem to be because we have new members bringing in new blood, new ideas of ego or you die. That's the way being human is.

LFL: Absolutely.

Marka: A challenge. Nobody's thrived if we were all just sitting on an island, and we had no stress, what would have happened?

LFL: I think stress would appear regardless. And I know how no tension or development. I recently interviewed one of our artists for Autism Awareness Month, and she said that if everyone was the same then life would be really boring.

Marka: I think that is that sort of sums that up.

LFL: I love it! It's been so great talking to you.

Marka: There's one another thing that we do, which I think is fundamentally important, because we have artists talks.

LFL: Yes. I love artist talks.

Marka: This time we had David Freeman who talked about homelessness and Long Beach. He's well known for his photography of the homeless population. And that was well attended. Really well attended. We're just down from Bixby Park. So right, right there. And then we had a jurors’ talk about what is the jury process? And how did the jurors approach this past show? And then we had a pricing workshop. How do you best price your artwork so that you can sell it?

LFL: I think artist talks are wonderful!

Marka: I think it sets us apart.

LFL: It's a gem of galleries and museums that do that.

Marka: In the past we've gone from artists to artists in front of their work and had them talk about their work. But I think we're doing more topics now, where we put the chairs out, we have a speaker.

LFL: Wonderful! I love it.

Marka: Anyway, we could talk all day.

LFL: I know, we could just keep going. It's been great talking to you!

Marka: You as well! I hope to see you at the gallery and we look forward to the upcoming auction.


Learn more about the Long Beach Creative Group and check out some of their upcoming exhibitions! Their silent auction “In Memorium” running July 10th through July 16th features works of esteemed local artists, including Rod Briggs, the artist who opened his studio to the Long Beach Creative Group. 10% of all profits from the auction will go to Able ARTS Work.

Join us this Summer in creative workshops to improve your own art skills and explore new techniques!


Marka Burns is a Long Beach based artist. She received her BFA from the Chouinard Art Institute (now Cal Arts) in 1968 and her MFA from California State University in Long Beach (CSULB) in 1976. Before receiving her MFA, she spent time living and creating art in Europe. Marka taught at CSULB from 1980 to 2012. She now spends time creating art in her studio and serves as president of the Long Beach Creative Group.


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