Emilie Brzezinski knows more than most political wives about power tools. She owns six chain saws. All made by Stihl. And all designed for different jobs.
“The 360, it’s for big things,” she explains, pulling out a machine that looks as if it could give the entire forest in nearby Great Falls Park a buzz cut. The chain (it’s a “rip chain,” she explains, “to make the cutting faster”) runs around a guide bar that’s 21 / 2 feet long.
“This one works very hard,” she says, pointing to her favorite, which is unfortunately obsolete, so getting spare parts can be difficult.
“And this one is a puny one, which I don’t like.”
Brzezinski reaches over the workbench with an ease that belies her 80-plus years to show off other implements — a wooden mallet from Poland with a distinctive ribbed handle that massages the palm with each blow. A gleaming-sharp ax.
These are the basic tools of the artwork Brzezinski creates in her McLean studio — bizarre Brobdingnagian sculptures hewn from red oak, cherry, walnut, maple. There are vast chairs and arches, giant benches and shapes that echo human forms, some reaching skyward and others leaning together in apparent lament.
It wasn’t wielding chain saws, though, that made “Brzezinski” a household name in Washington’s inner circles and overseas. Her husband, Zbigniew, was President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and remains a prominent foreign policy analyst. Their older son, Ian, is a defense expert; son Mark is ambassador to Sweden. And Mika, the youngest, is a host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”
Despite the fact that Emilie has had no formal training, the artwork has brought the family matriarch recognition of her own. She won first prize for sculpture at the 2003 Florence Biennial; a collection of monumental tree trunks lined with life-size family photographs — “Family Trees” — was recently shown in Dresden, Germany; Prague; and Gdansk, Poland. Earlier this year, she published a coffee-table book of her work, and she is getting ready for an exhibit opening in September at Washington’s Kreeger Museum.
In preparation, Brzezinski has been working on a hollowed trunk that displays a photograph of the people of Ukraine, “because,” she says, “of all that is happening there.” It is an indication that she didn’t simply eschew a Washington insider life for what is now known as outsider art. The geopolitics that sparked discussion at the family dinner table and shaped her husband’s and children’s careers have always preoccupied her, too.
“I was a political wife but not quite the way you imagine,” she says. “I stayed with my kids; I stayed with my sculpture.”
Brzezinski is making tea as she explains this lifelong balancing act while warding off the clumsy adoration of her German shepherd puppy, Daisy. It is easier to imagine Brzezinski here at home, in jeans and flat black boots, than at the White House, though there is a recent picture on a side table of her with Zbigniew, decked out to greet President Hu Jintao of China. Her gray hair is austere without being severe, pulled back to reveal an open, oblong face and distinctly Slavic features; her English is accented, precise and sparked with humor.
For years, while her children were growing and her husband was in the White House, she would “pinch-hit” with her art. “You do what’s in front of you. Sometimes you are compromising yourself; sometimes you are compromising other people.”
Now, though, with a purpose-built studio just steps from the kitchen door, she has launched on a process of rediscovering her past, “an effort at finding who I really am.”
If sculpting trees in a search for one’s roots is not a particularly subtle concept, Brzezinski herself seems surprised by the influence her Eastern European family history exerts. She never lived in Czechoslovakia, though her maiden name, Benes, is famous there. Her great-uncle Edvard was the country’s president. Brzezinski was born in 1932 in Switzerland. With the outbreak of war, her parents moved from there to London, then in 1943 to California, crossing the Atlantic under attack from German U-boats.
She graduated from Wellesley College, then worked at Harvard’s Littauer Library, where she met her future husband — his father, like hers, an exiled diplomat of Eastern European extraction.
The Brzezinskis bought their house in McLean more than 30 years ago, when Zbigniew accepted the White House job. Close to a century old, it’s set in a six-acre oasis of sloping lawns and towering trees, a rustic holdout against the tidy brick suburban houses that peer in over the driveway fence.
The children were miserable when they came to McLean. “They cried every night,” Brzezinski remembers. She understood, forced nomad that she was. Perhaps that’s why she rooted them so firmly on the outskirts of a city known for transience, running their new home “like a farm with chickens, ducks, a cat and horses.”
“We’re not a big family, but very close,” she says.
One of the horses, Mika’s favorite, used to come clopping into the house, even joining their annual winter parties.
“It added a little humor,” Brzezinski says. “And it was better behaved than the dog.”
The past is present, too, in Brzezinski’s work. She reaches over to show off her earliest sculptures, a long-necked wooden waterfowl, about five inches tall, and a fist-size frog. “You see that?” she asks, drawing attention to the frog’s unusual posture, with one foreleg raised. “I made it like that because the piece of wood had a hole in it.” And sure enough, the wood is flawed. Instead of choosing another — perfect — piece, Brzezinksi adjusted the frog’s pose, raising its leg as if it’s waving.
The wood’s very imperfection, its history, gives the sculpture its essential character.
The same is true, she explains, of the tree trunks she carves. She looks for trees that have a story to tell, were stunted, struck by lightning or grew in an unusual way.
Then she works with nature instead of against it.
‘I can do this in my sleep.”
Brzezinski leads the way out the kitchen door, down precipitous gravel-and-log steps and across a wooden footbridge to the studio. It’s a disorienting descent, and the bridge doesn’t have a handrail. “One of my sons is a lawyer, and he told me to do something about it before somebody sues.”
She swings open the door to reveal more stairs leading down to the studio floor. Directly opposite, at eye level, are the tops of carved tree trunks, all bearing the distinctive wheals of Brzezinski’s chain saws.
“If you start working big,” she says, as if to explain the difference between these monster trunks and a fist-size waving frog, “it is hard to reduce. Looking up is more exciting.”
Brzezinski puts on earmuffs but no gloves before carving into a trunk. The chain saw whines; sawdust flies up. She has been working hard to finish the Ukraine sculpture for her upcoming Kreeger exhibit. (The show will be underwritten by Stihl — a bit of a departure for a company accustomed to supporting trade groups of landscapers and contests for lumberjacks.)
Brzezinski has had the Ukrainian photograph blown up to create a giant collage of Eastern European faces. She has pasted them into a hollowed, sanded maple trunk (shipped from a friend’s property in Charlottesville for $800) in much the way she worked photos of her relatives into “Family Trees.” But this is a news photo of many people, gathered in the square in Kiev — anonymous faces, all upturned, all wondering what might lie ahead, as Russia moved to annex Crimea.
“And not one face is smiling. Not one face,” Brzezinski says.
For Brzezinski, it’s a conscious shift: a project spurred on by family, suffused with foreign policy, and focused on the uncertain future of the lands where her roots lie.
Frances Stead Sellers is a staff writer for the Magazine.
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The Brzezinski exhibit at Kreeger
“The Lure of the Forest,” an exhibit of Emilie Brzezinski’s monumental wood sculptures, will be on display at the Kreeger Museum from Sept. 16 through Dec. 27.
The museum, at 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW, is open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations are required Tuesdays through Thursdays; visitors can sign up
for the 10:30 a.m. or 1:30 p.m. guided tour
by calling 202-338-
3552 or visiting kreegermuseum. org.
The museum is closed on Sundays and Mondays and in August.