By Marlene Burns
Counting of the Omer, “Sefirat HaOmer,” is the ritual performed for the 49 days between the second day of Passover and the next festival of Shavuot. Each day, we count and remember the sheaf of grain that was offered during Temple times. This period not only marks the beginning of the barley harvest but also connects our liberation from slavery to our redemption at Mt. Sinai, with the giving of the Torah.
Kabbalistically, we utilize these days to delve into the attributes of our souls with the intention of improving our characters. Each week, we study one of the lower seven sefirot: Strength, Loving-Kindness, Beauty, Eternity, Awe, Foundation, and Kingship. The top three represent the attributes of the mind: Understanding, Knowledge, and Wisdom. The sefirot are topped with the crown.
In this visual expression, the configuration of the sefirot and the barley offering are superimposed over the image of the tablets that were given to our people at Sinai.
Each sefirah has an assigned color. Beauty (Tiferet) is purple and the midpoint in the sefirot arrangement. Besides anchoring the arrangement of the 10 sefirot, it merges the two sefirot on either side: Loving-Kindness (Chesed) and Strength (Gevurah). The same purple was chosen to anchor the design with the arches of the tablets.
Q&A with Marlene
How did you begin your journey/career as an artist?
As a child, I was interested in and privileged to study all of the arts: Fine art, dance, music, and drama. When it was time to apply to a university, I chose fine art for my studies and earned both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the School of Design, Architecture, and Art at the University of Cincinnati. I apprenticed in an art studio during those years and taught art in the public schools upon the completion of my studies.
After a few years, I realized that I needed to be painting full time. I never stopped to consider if I could survive on commissions. I only knew that doing something else during the day was sapping my energy and creativity.
What challenges did you overcome early on? And now?
Early on, the biggest challenge was to survive and not end up starving in an attic. Being a professional artist is a fickle business. There are no secret formulas for success. Talent is not enough. It is a combination of a consistent body of authentic work, and effective marketing as well. That last one is the real stickler! You must spend a portion of your day getting your art out there for the public to see, whether it be in galleries, shows, publications, through art dealers or lectures. Over the years, the way art sells has changed dramatically. Back in the day, I stayed home and painted all day for the galleries that represented me. When the paintings were complete, they were picked up and when they sold, I was sent a check. These days, I spend a large percentage of my time marketing and most of my sales occur online. Collectors buy directly from me. Today’s challenge is to know my target audience and keep offering them provocative work.
What prompted you to begin your Jewish/mystical series of paintings?
I apprenticed in sanctuary art. My mentor taught me that a pretty design is not enough when the art is an expression of one’s religious beliefs. The artist needs to be ‘all in’ when it comes to understanding the subject. If I have no feelings about a specific prayer, I cannot authentically express it. My job is to help the viewer feel and understand through the added visual dimension.
My avocation is Hebrew education. I have been a lay leader, teacher, and tutor in several communities for the past 30 years. Normally, I paint in the abstract expressionist style, which allows me to turn my insides out onto the canvas. About 10 years ago, a simple conversation about the Shema prompted the first painting in this series, now 27 strong. I couldn’t clear my head of the conversation, so I decided to paint it out. Six weeks later, I had the first nine paintings of the series and have been adding to it ever since. The series now examines proverbs, psalms, holidays, and greetings.
Each painting has an accompanying text that allows me to expound on the subject as an artist and an educator. These texts are an integral part of the paintings.
More than why I began, I’d like to address why I continue. ‘Sacred Intention’ has been the most significant series of my career in that it marries my two passions for painting and Hebrew education. I offer this series in prints in order to spread the messages to larger audiences. The work requires me to stay in learning mode as I research and prepare the next offering. It took 40 years, but I returned to sanctuary art, taking the lessons I learned and applying them to my style and Judaism.
How does your relationship with G-d impact your art?
As an artist, authenticity is key. If an artist is just painting pretty things, and there is no real intention, there is no real value of the process. With this series, aptly named “Sacred Intention,” it is all about the kavanah. I study these texts, commentary, have years of saying them with kavanah, loving them, teaching them. My viewers feel it if I am authentic and that is my intention. When I was in 10th grade, my art teacher, who was a professional artist who taught to keep a regular paycheck coming in to support his family, never signed a painting. He was a religious man and said that he would only sign it if he put down G-d’s name as well. I never forgot that. In our tradition, we are in partnership with G-d, and not a moment goes by when the brush is in my hand that I forget from whom my gift was given.
Marlene Burns earned two degrees in fine art and did an apprenticeship in sanctuary art. She has lived in Cleveland, Detroit, Scottsdale and now, Tucson, painting every step of the way. She has raised two children and has multiple grandchildren and granddogs. Her partner is retired from the printing industry and, given his sense of aesthetics, is her best critic and supporter. She has been a lay leader for services in her Jewish community, as well as a Hebrew teacher and private tutor. Her website is art-marleneburns.com.