Story and cover photo by Ethan Pickering / Contributing Writer
In artist Wayne Brezinka’s crowded studio, famous figures come to life.
A portrait of George Floyd, the Minneapolis man whose death by police sparked a summer of marches and demonstrations, sits solemnly on an easel in the center of the room.
From another spot, public television icon Mr. Rogers smiles amid the relics of the past.
Meanwhile the large, cheekbone-pronounced face of Abe Lincoln and the icy stare of Ruth Bader Ginsburg preside over the mess in progress.
From his studio in the back of a travel agency in Old Hickory, Brezinka has made a name for himself in the art world, providing illustrations for The Washington Post, The New York Times and Warner Brothers Records. He is known for a unique style of art he describes as “mixed media assemblage art.”
Brezinka, 51, grew up in Upsala, Minnesota, a small town about 100 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Founded in the late 19th century, the town was named after Uppsala, Sweden by the Swedish settlers in the area.
Standing amid his various finished works and many of the projects still under construction, Brezinka stands about six feet tall with gray eyes and short hair hidden under a baseball cap. Art, he said, captivated him when he was a boy.
“I’ve always been creative as a human or as an individual and so from an early age, I would draw, I would make stuff, and as I got older in high school I exhausted all my art classes by the time I was in ninth grade. I couldn’t take any more art classes because there was no more to take,” he said.
After high school, he enrolled in Staples Technical College, which is now called Central Lakes College, in Staples, Minnesota. He attended a two-year graphic design program, and then began working immediately as a contract artist and moved to Nashville in 1993.
“I have always wanted to design record album covers, and Nashville was the hub to come to in the early 90s,” he said.
The move paid off, and within a few years, he had credits for George Strait and Willie Nelson record albums.
While he began his career in graphic design, he adopted a style of art that he is most known for today called “mixed media assemblage art.”
“It’s using found objects and items that pertain to the subject,” Brezinka describes his style, “I like to tell a broader story within the piece. Everything in it has to do with the time frame and location (the subject) was in.”
Brezinka started doing mixed media assemblage portraits of historical figures in the early 2000s and gained success when his portrait of President Abraham Lincoln was placed on exhibit at Ford’s Theatre in Washington D.C.
The portrait was inspired by Brezinka’s interest in the appearance of Lincoln during his presidency and the Civil War. “I was always taken with his black and white photographs in the history books. He looks so interesting to me.”
He’s received commission to create portraits of famous folks over the past decade including Bob Dylan, President Obama, and, in Nashville, John Seigenthaler, the revered publisher of The Tennessean for many decades.
The assignment to create a portrait of Ruth Bader Ginsburg came as a special order.
Brezinka recalled the day Ginsburg passed away. “I emailed my contact at the Washington Post and I was like ‘Hey throw my name in the hat for a Ginsburg portrait.’” The reply immediate. Could he meet a deadline of the next afternoon at 4 p.m., less than 24 hours distant?
“I thought, am I up for this? And I said sure let’s go for it. So, I started at 8 a.m. Saturday. And they published it at 5 p.m.”
His portrait of Ginsburg was used to illustrate a memorial article published in the Post on Sept. 20, 2020.
A year earlier, Brezinka created an oversized portrait of the late Fred Rogers, star of the PBS kid’s show, “Mr. Rogers.” His portrait, which features personal items given to him by Rogers’ widow, Joanne, was displayed at PBS headquarters for a time and is slated to go on display in other cities once the pandemic’s grip on travel relaxes. Brezinka said he was thrilled to meet Joanne Rodgers.
“I was floored, and I was so delighted,” he said. When she died January 14, he posted condolences on his Facebook page.
In addition to his portraits of famous figures, Brezinka also explores personal emotions in his work.
A piece now underway is named “Disrupted.” It is a multi-media retelling of the story of Job from the Bible. Donors to his Kickstarter campaign can submit their personal struggles of the pandemic. He will then display the photos and videos as a part of the art piece.
“Everything is taken away from him. He’s alone and its very dark and desolate,” he said of Job. “To me that’s the way 2020 has been for a lot of people.”
Another piece “Preyed Upon Prey” is a story of Brezinka’s childhood and the abuse he suffered. It was inspired by him wanting to tell his story of abuse through his art.
“I had a reoccurring nightmare as a seven-year-old of being chased through the forest by men in wolf masks,” he said,
This piece was featured on the PBS show Tennessee Crossroads, and Brezinka was interviewed for it.
“After it (the episode) aired, the executive director said to me that (they) got more response to this episode than any other episode because of that piece,” he said.“The power behind vulnerability and also visual art” is impactful, Brezinka noted. “Some people don’t know how to communicate it but when they see something that touches something in them, it opens things up for them.”
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