Sisters bring prayer, art together in book

By Michele Chan Santos

Correspondent

Entering Marti Burns’ studio feels like walking into a bejeweled chapel or a miniature cathedral. Each wall is covered with her multicolored religious paintings; the works depict God, Jesus Christ and Mary, among many other images, including angels, saints, animals and wonders of nature.

Burns lives in the country outside of Bastrop. She belongs to St. Paul Parish in Smithville. For the last eight years Burns, a professional artist, has devoted herself to a series of works inspired by the marbled glass in the windows at her parish. So far, she has completed 11 of 16 paintings, each measuring eight feet by three feet, all created from images she sees in her mind’s eye when gazing upon the windows of her church.

Burns’ medium is watercolor with tissue, oriental paper or fabric overlay on aqua board. The works are embellished with gold leaf. Some of the titles include "Mary, The Mother of God and All Those Devoted to Her," "Christ Suffers for Us All," and "And God Said, Let There Be Light."

Six of the paintings have been displayed in the Religious Art Gallery at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Austin. The paintings and prayerful meditations based upon the paintings are the subject of a book, "Looking with Your Soul," written by Burns’ sister, Kelly Alexander.

Burns is a professional artist with an art degree from the University of Texas. She has been an art teacher and once owned and managed an art gallery in Austin. Her artistic and spiritual journey began when she was at Sunday Mass at St. Paul with her husband John several years ago, shortly after moving to the Bastrop/Smithville area.

Burns recounts that day in the "Looking with Your Soul" book:

"Each week, I asked God to show me what I was supposed to do with my newfound spirituality that I had experienced around the time of my mother’s death the previous year. The song being played was "Open My Eyes, Lord" and I prayed the same. And as I was coming back from communion, God answered my prayer. I saw an image of Mary’s face in the front left window of the church … but how was that possible? The church windows are not stained glass. Instead, they are made of swirly opaque glass similar to a shower door. As I knelt after communion and looked again, the image was still there. At the time, I did not realize that this was the answer to my prayer and my chance to say ‘Yes’ to God and all that he was asking me to do."

In the church at St. Paul, each of the large windows is divided into smaller panels. Correspondingly, Burns’ paintings are each divided into 23 panels. Each large work takes four to six months to complete. Her sketches of each window are called "Pencil Prayers;" the paintings are a series called "Inspired Images."

Burns and Alexander have held retreats at St. Paul where they place the paintings next to the windows that inspired them. Some people see images in the glass, and some see the images in great detail. Other people see nothing at all.

Father Pius Thekkevayalil Mathew, the pastor of St. Paul, is supportive of Burns and her work.

"Each person has a personal vision about Jesus Christ. When Marti, after receiving communion, was going back she saw a vision in the windows," Father Pius said. "Jesus is everywhere present. I cannot see that vision or figure in the window. Marti can see it, that is a special miracle. God has given each person different talents. Marti is using the talents Jesus has given her. Her work is wonderful and excellent."

Kelly Alexander, Burns’ sister, transformed her life because of Burns’ paintings.

A teacher, Alexander quit her day job in order to bring the message of her sisters’ paintings to others. For several years, she has given presentations, written inspired meditations and told the story of the paintings to a wide variety of audiences all over the state. Alexander brings copies of the "Looking with Your Soul" book to her speaking engagements, as well as selected panels from the paintings. She works with school groups, the elderly, retreat groups and other gatherings, leading people through a guided meditation based on images from the paintings.

The sisters have a special relationship with Carmelite nuns as their late mother was very devoted to the Carmelites.

A quote from the Discalced Carmelite Nuns of the Most Holy Trinity in Arlington is on the back of the book, "We know that Our Heavenly Father has always been your guide during this long journey. May many souls profit and grow in God’s love from reading "Looking with Your Soul." It speaks so beautifully of the depth of your spiritual experience."

The Carmelites’ devotion has strengthened Burns and Alexander through the years. A portion of the proceeds from the book sales goes to the Carmelites.

"Knowing that they are praying for the success of our project has helped me through discouraging times and when life’s distractions put obstacles in my path," Burns said in the book.

Burns continues to paint.

"For me, my studio is my holy place, my chapel," she said, surrounded by her work. "I don’t know how to do art without praying."

For more information about the Inspired Images paintings, visit www.martiburns.com. To order the book or learn more about it, visit www.lookingwithyoursoul.com. Groups interested in having Kelly Alexander speak about the paintings and the book may contact her at (817) 717-0082.

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