Familiar Family Nests in Metaphoric’Trees’
At first glance, the exhibition “Family Trees” from a distance appears to be a cluster of sturdy, tall, intimating trees, inhabited by life-size photographs of people.
Things change when you move around in this mini-forest at the American University’s Katzen Arts Center. You become immersed in a world that is at once highly personal to the artist, yet resonant to what we’ve all experienced on many different levels with our own families.
“You have to wander through this forest,” Emilie Brzezinski, the noted sculptor behind these “trees,” says. “Looking at the exhibition in total won’t let you know what’s going on here.”
What’s going on is a cluster of dualities and meanings, deep memories and even tribal suggestions. Peeling away at the very nature of these large wood sculptures — which echo families and forests in general, as well as Brzezinski’s particular history — and you wind up unwrapping metaphor upon metaphor. No wooden family portraits here.
The monumental, freestanding trees have been carved and opened to house life-size, dramatically rendered black-and-white photographs of Brzezinski’s immediate family — husband Zbigniew Brzezinski, children, grandchildren, herself and a German shepherd.
In addition to Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as national security adviser in the Carter administration, the family includes another well-known figure: daughter Mika Brzezinski, co-host of MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and also author of the recently released family memoir “All Things at Once.”
But the trees also accommodate the matriarch’s own unique life story. Emilie Brzezinski was born in Switzerland but is the daughter of Czech parents who immigrated to the United States in World War II. She is also the grandniece of Edvard Benes, the former president of Czechoslovakia. Having come from a region known for its appreciation and lore of forests and trees, Emilie has been sculpting wood since she was a child, when her father, an amateur wood carver, practiced the craft in his tool shop.
Noted for her artwork — using felled trees from which she carves sculptural forms that often retain the tree’s vertical shape — she has strong, evocative feelings about forests and what they mean to her and her origins.
“Forests are places of solace and silence,” Emilie said. “Europeans, especially Central Europeans, are drawn to them. They are, I think, places that have a special meaning — where you dream and think. They inspire and haunt.”
Whether Germans or Gauls, Europeans throughout the ages seemed to appreciate the darkness and silence of forests like birthrights, standing tall while empires around them crumbled and countries changed.
Several years ago, Emilie took her exhibition “Forest” on something of a grand tour throughout Europe, with stops in Berlin and Prague, among other cities. “It felt like a homecoming,” she said. “And I think the work stemmed from both my cultural roots in Czechoslovakia and from my family roots.”
“Family Trees” though is far removed from her previous work, and it functions as a kind of double word and visual pun: Emilie has literally put her family members into trees, so that what you see is a family tree — inside trees. And clustered trees themselves, in the imagination, often remind people of families.
Emilie photographed the members of her family herself and nestled the full-scale images inside tree trunks in particular arrangements. She has placed her children mostly in plain sight, while her husband is further back. Zbigniew Brzezinski in fact looks somehow freer here, connected to the more important, intimate and lasting bonds of family and memory than to international strategic alliances or official policies.
“Think of this as an elaborate game of hide and seek,” Emilie noted. “We’ve all done that as children, hidden in trees, behind them just out of sight.”
She remembered working on a cherry tree once and discovering a thriving ant colony inside. Now her own colony resides in timeless bark and core.
Of course, the Brzezinskis, with their achievements in politics, media and art, and even in European history, are not your everyday family. But what Emilie Brzezinski has done with her “Family Tree” has little to do with achievement or fame. Something deeper, more universally instinctive sprouts from her wood-grained mosaic. You see a thoughtful wife, mother, grandmother and artist, along with her brood — even the family dog. It’s a family tree to which we can all relate.
“Emilie Brzezinski: Family Trees” runs through June 6 at the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave., NW. For more information, please call (202) 885-ARTS (2787) or visit www.american.edu/katzen.
About the Author
Gary Tischler is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.