Skyline Passage, 2006. Red oak, 5 elements, dimensions variable.

Identity in Dialogue: A Conversation with Emilie Brzezinski

Family Trees, a Hide and Seek Story, 2010.

Born in Geneva, Switzerland, of Czech parents, Emilie Benes Brzezinski has lived in the United States since her childhood. Though her artistic career goes back to the early ’70s, a period in which she experimented with a variety of media, including plastic, latex, and wood fiber, she is best known for her rough-hewn sculptures made from expressively carved tree trunks. Working with ax and chainsaw, she creates large-scale forms that preserve the natural shapes of the trees and amplify their essential character. Brzezinski’s work has been exhibited at galleries and museums in the U.S. and internationally, and her sculptures are found in various private and corporate collections. In 2014, her work was the subject of a retrospective at the Kreeger Art Museum. Two other monumental works were simultaneously installed in Washington, DC, one at the Phillips Collection and the other near the Federal Reserve Board Building. A monograph, Emilie Brzezinski: The Lure of the Forest (New York, D.A.P., 2014), published in conjunction with the Kreeger exhibition, features contributions by John Beardsley, Barbara Rose, and Aneta Georgievska-Shine. Brze­zinski works and resides in McLean, Virginia.

Aneta Georgievska-Shine: Your recent exhibition at the Kreeger Museum highlighted your respect for nature as a form-giver and your understanding of sculpture as a process of uncovering its vital forms. Though these qualities are evident in all of your work, they are particularly striking in monumental pieces such as Lament. Were you always this focused on the innate forms of wood? How has your approach evolved over time?

Apollo and Daphne, 1994. Boxelder, 2 elements.

Emilie Brzezinski: Every project I ever undertook allowed me to learn more about the fabric, the structure, and the individuality of the particular wood that I used. My work was always a process of discovery and experimentation. Eventually, I became aware of a whole portfolio of shapes, motifs, and designs, large and small, that I could use for my sculptures. Each of these discoveries also led me to new insights about the use of specific tools—the chisel, the ax, and especially the chainsaw—and the different cuts, lines, ripples, and gouges they created. This awareness probably goes back to my teenage years, when I accompanied my father on long hikes along the beaches of Oregon, scouring for various pieces of wood and their forms, hidden or visible, for special attenuations and movements—because it takes exactly that, to search for the special form, shaped by nature. An early sculpture, Apollo and Daphne, shows a variety of designs—some given by nature, others by my hand and tools. I was fascinated by the beautiful twist of the trunk, the unusual quirky splitting typical of the boxelder. The single piece of wood that had split into the two forms had a subtle attenuation. In addition, there were hollows created by an enormous ant nest, which I included, all of which gave the sculpture a sense of life. Lament is even more emphatically about nature. Each of the three pieces of wood was rich in forms suggestive of grief or sorrow, even before I began thinking about them as a larger unit. 

AG-S: In another monumental work, Trajectory, I can see your characteristic vertical wedge again, but used to suggest a forward push. There is also the paradox of formidable weight and solidity combined with an amazing capacity for movement. How did this particular form come about? 

EB: I found a bent, oversize piece of a willow trunk at a mill. I bought it without knowing what I would do with it. I immediately cut it into a wedge shape in order to keep the wood from rotting. It stood in my studio for several years, because I was occupied with other projects. When the Roy Lichtenstein retrospective came to the National Gallery of Art and I saw his drawings and paintings from the “Brushstrokes in Flight” series again, I remembered how they had inspired me, so many years earlier, to seek a form that could express a sense of twisting, attenuation, and movement. That was how I discovered and created the first “vertical wedge” in Arch in Flight. I wanted to do something with the willow wedge, but I had no idea of how to suspend its enormous weight. Finally, I lowered it onto a curved branch of maple, in the position I wanted to see it, and worked from there. The push forward was the result I was hoping for, which came when I managed to establish a balance between the weight and the suggestion of movement, conveying a sense of a “branch in flight.” For me, Trajectory is the last stage in a striving for a shape that I have favored throughout my career. 

AG-S: You have also experimented with mixing wood and other materials. Your tree molds from the ’80s were made of rubber applied to the bark of living trees. At the Fralin Museum in Virginia in 2003, your sculptures became core elements of a sound installation. How do you feel about those experiments now? 

EB: I have always been tempted by the potential for sound in my sculpture. One of the pieces at the Kreeger Museum, Temple Bells, was shown as a kind of musical piece at the Wroclav Museum in Poland, some years ago. This was a larger project that brought together visual artists and experimental musicians. Such projects require a long time and concentration on the part of all the participants, which I am sometimes unable to dedicate. Occasionally, I am approached by artists who would like to work on mixed-media projects with me, involving music or dance. I am always open to these suggestions, but one needs the right circumstances. 

AG-S: Your most ambitious mixed-media installation to date is the sculptural group Family Trees (2010), which combines wood with black and white photographs of members of your family. 

Family Trees, a Hide and Seek Story (detail), 2010.

EB: This installation was a significant departure from my customary practice. At the start, I felt that I was taking a leap into the dark, leaving behind years of constant, familiar approach and entering a completely unrelated means of expression. In many ways, the origins of this project go back to 2002, when I exhibited Forest at various European venues, concluding at the Museum Kampa in Prague. That show was called “New York under Ashes: Prague under Water,” referencing the 9/11 disaster and the severe floods of Eastern Europe in 2002. In contrast to all the other venues where I had shown Forest, it was now set in a rather dramatic environment—a huge hall with wall-size black and white photographs of the area around Ground Zero. Though I was uncertain about this juxtaposition at first, I was intrigued by the new photographic processes and the speed with which one could move or transform the images. Several years later, around 2008, I became tempted to combine the photographic medium with wood in my own studio, eventually creating Family Trees. 

AG-S: An anthropomorphic character has always been present in your sculpture. I am thinking of early works inspired by classical myths and Titans, which was inspired by Rodin. Were you always thinking in terms of such analogies? How did this change in Family Trees

EB: If a tree has any suggestion of movement within it, and it is not fully vertical, like a typical poplar, it has the potential for the contrapposto I am looking for. That contrapposto is always the starting point that leads me to think of human forms, as well as emotions. What led me to apply photographic images to the interiors of the hollowed trunks in Family Trees were my viewers. I had noticed that primal instinct many times, when people stand next to my work or try to enter it in one way or another. This is how I came up with this very personal metaphor (full-size figures of family members in tree trunks). Combining photographs with wood was a drastic step, but once I began to experiment with different kinds of paper, glue, colors, and methods of hollowing and smoothing out the trunks, and once I had tested samples of single trunks with images, I was swept up by the potential and kept working, for two years, until it was done. 

AG-S: Did the meaning of Family Trees change over time, especially as you reinstalled it in different locations? 

EB: Sometimes the most difficult space turns out to be the one that provides what the installation needs. The ground floor of the Katzen Art Museum, with its angled walls, complex windows, and dramatic staircase, created the perfect venue for Family Trees. I could have left it smaller, but it was important to include all of my immediate family in order to make my statement complete—to myself. It was a catharsis of sorts, a final statement about my identity as a person from Central Europe, that I have grown roots in America through my children and grandchildren. It is worth noting that in showing this family history I did not go back to my ancestors, but forward, to my offspring. 

AG-S: Your forms activate the space around them—especially when they grow into larger installations such as Vortex, Forest, and Titans. How do you respond to the challenges of specific sites? 

EB: The relationship between site and sculpture, the spacing, the juxtapositions, the lighting—all of this affects how a work is presented to the viewer. Take Vortex, for instance. Seen in an enclosed room, where all the pieces are tightly lined up next to one another, this group is quite different from its iteration as Skyline Passage, where it reaches out into the enormity of the sky to make a profound statement about space itself. When Titans was installed on the banks of the River Vltava in Prague, the components were spaced in a manner sufficiently strong to counter any distractions. The spaces between individual parts of a sculptural group are the glue that holds them together as the forms speak to each other. 

Skyline Passage, 2006. Red oak, 5 elements, dimensions variable.

AG-S: The Kreeger exhibition, curated by Milena Kalinovska, a fellow Central European, addresses the question of identity, though obliquely. Would you say that the works shown there, notably Ukraine Trunk, represented a retreat from the explicit symbolism of Family Trees

EB: Ukraine Trunk is definitely about something broader—the human condition as expressed under specific historical circumstances—about unhappy people revolting against a regime perceived as oppressive. The idea came from a small photo in the New York Times of Kiev Square, filled with grim and rather unhappy looking people, waiting to know their fate—or perhaps making an effort not to accept it without a fight. I tracked down the Turkish photographer who had made the image, Bulent Kilic, and he gave me permission to use his photograph. 

AG-S: Is your cultural identity still important for your work? 

Lament, 2013. Red oak, 3 elements.

EB: For someone like me, a child of the ’40s, the question of identity remains crucial even at this stage of life. Over the years, I have met other Central-European artists and curators, both in Europe and in the States. There is a natural inclination and curiosity that brings us together and compels us to help each other. My friendship with Ursula von Rydingsvard has lasted throughout the years. Magdalena Abakanowicz came out to McLean to visit my installation Aftermath in 1986, and we have kept up with each other since. She helped me to facilitate an exhibition at the Uzjazdowski Palace in Warsaw, and I helped her to coordinate a show in Chicago. These various personalities and players, however vague and amorphous as a group, are very important to maintaining my sense of identity. 

AG-S: You often underscore the idea of dialogue when you talk about your relationship with wood—that your sculpture is a dialogue between you and nature. Does this exchange feel daunting at times? Do you ever find yourself uncertain as you approach an already existing form? 

EB: My dialogue with the wood has changed, though those changes have happened in an almost imperceptible way. The chainsaw, for instance, was at first only a tool for blocking out the basic form. It was fast and efficient, clumsy at times, but it got the job done. Then I began to appreciate the variety of its marks and vestiges, the gouges and crosscuts, and began incorporating them. I realized what a lively presence they gave to the basic forms. Slowly, the movements of the saw became more free-flowing and organic, and this rough instrument became much more adept at expressing different emotions. Thus in Lament, you find both repetitive single lines of cuts and deep wedges into the fabric of the wood, which result in a stronger emotional statement. As for the scale of the trees that serve as the building blocks of my sculptures, 

I am more often exhilarated by the challenge of dealing with their monumental presence than afraid of it. When I work with tree trunks like the ones in Lament, I am grateful to nature for presenting me with certain gestures, lines, and spaces. These are the impulses that lead me to the theme, that direct me. For the most part, any anxiety disappears as I enter into dialogue with the various nature-given elements. 

AG-S: You insist on this connection with nature, but your sculptures are most often exhibited indoors. Do you see them in sculpture gardens, or other public or private spaces, exposed to the elements? 

EB: I have placed some of my wood works permanently outside, and I have lived to regret it. Two major works, Offering and Hume Arch, no longer exist because of their exposure to the elements. Whenever I am invited to show outdoors for a long period of time, I face a difficult choice—to display my work at the risk of serious damage or to keep it in storage, without purpose. 

AG-S: So how do you envision the ideal home for your sculptures? 

EB: When I began working with wood, I was entranced by its fabric: its rich surprises in terms of form—the deviations, moods, textures, lines, and directions. I never gave much thought to preserving my work, the conditions necessary for its survival, nor did I look for alternatives. I just thoughtlessly loved the wood and used it. Now, I backtrack and think more seriously about the life of my sculpture—and how to preserve it. There is no question in my mind that some of my creations, especially those that are more monumental like Lament and Prague Titans, call for a medium such as bronze. Arch in Flight, which I recently cast in bronze, was displayed in front of the Federal Reserve Building in Washington. This is an example of a very successful casting, because the simple post-and-lintel composition conveys the sway of the cherry trunks so effectively. All the details are there—the fabric of the wood itself, the signs of the process—and they feel very tangible. 

AG-S: Casting may heighten movement but also undermine the “living” presence of your forms. Or maybe it is the ideal process to preserve nature’s forms. Does casting wood into bronze fundamentally change your dialogue with nature? 

EB: Casting is a means of preservation, no doubt. I am also aware that wood is not bronze and vice versa. The total honesty of a piece of wood cannot be replicated in bronze. Yet, when making a bronze out of “living materials,” the metal partakes of that quality as well. In fact, it adds its own tone to the dialogue, a gesture that helps bring it to a conclusion. 

Aneta Georgievska-Shine is an art historian and lecturer at the University of Maryland.