- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

“This is what you can do with a chain saw,” Virginia sculptor Emilie Brzezinski jokes during a fast-paced tour of her exhibit, “Emilie Brzezinski: Dialog With Wood,” at the American University Museum in AU’s new Katzen Arts Center.

To demonstrate the works’ heroic, confrontational character, she begins with the more than 15-foot-tall saw-created “trees” of “Forest III” in the museum’s third-floor Rotunda; stops briefly at the three smaller “Bowl Shapes”; descends to the massive “Cores” on the first floor; then ends with the gigantic, five-sectioned red oak “Passage,” 16-foot-high oak “Titans” and 18-foot-plus-tall maple “Nike” in the Sculpture Garden.

Mrs. Brzezinski made the pieces in either 2003 or 2005 from huge trunks of dead trees, cutting “fast and sharp” with saws, slashing diagonally with axes and detailing with chisels.

Each series in this impressive show requires different philosophies, techniques and environments because each sets up an intense, visionary experience.

Mrs. Brzezinski, 73, used different woods in the 23 personages of “Forest III” to simulate trees in real forests or groupings of people stretching to the Rotunda’s luminous, soaring heights. Using vertical wedges as basic forms, she twisted them in torquelike movements to effect an almost infinite variety of expressions.

Try walking through the “paths” the sculptor creates through these anthropomorphic forms —the vertical wedges can be interpreted as human torsos — smelling woods as different as red oak and ash. Closely examine both smooth and rough surfaces to observe the subtle washes of color.

Then move even closer to admire the chisel-worked wood grains, axed diagonal slashings and splittings, and areas of knobs, rot spots and borer holes.

The sculptor says she likes to work with sky-piercing totems and earthbound bowllike shapes. “I wanted to engage the garden’s sharp angles and dehumanizing cement spaces with the upward-thrusting ‘Titans’ and ‘Nike,’ and floor-hugging, five-part ‘Passage,’ ” she says.

She also treasures her more intimate “Bowl Shapes,” which might be embryonic “Forest III” personages or trees beginning to form.

With this show, Mrs. Brzezinski is finally receiving her due. Although her 1997 Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Apotheosis, A Reconstructed Forest” of 50 sculpted tree trunks earned critical praise, it highlighted only one aspect of her oeuvre. Since then, she has exhibited in Spain, Warsaw, Budapest, Bucharest, the Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts in Wilmington, and the University of Miami’s Lowe Art Museum, among other venues, but this is the first comprehensive overview of her work.

One wonders how this tall, pencil-slim woman with white-streaked blond hair came to work with 3,000-pound-plus tree trunks.

The Swiss-born artist of Czech parentage says she whittled wood as a child and learned to appreciate nature by visiting America’s national parks after her family’s emigration to California during World War II. After graduating from Wellesley College, she married Zbigniew Brzezinski (who later became President Carter’s national security adviser), mothered three children, moved to McLean and learned to handle chain saws at a rural Virginia lumber company.

Her show’s title couldn’t be better. Her “dialog” with wood is a give-and-take in which she works to understand where and how the wood wants her to proceed. In this process, she projects an intense vision of art as nature and nature as art.

Asked about her works’ inner character, Mrs. Brzezinski says, “I consider my tree forms to be meta-phors of humanity and its struggle for survival.”

This is where their considerable power lies, as this pleasurable and illuminating exhibition shows.

WHAT: “Emilie Brzezinski: Dialog With Wood,” part of the American University Museum’s “Grand Openings” exhibition

WHERE: American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW

WHEN: Noon to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays; noon to 7 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Sundays and Mondays and Nov. 24 through 26. Through Dec. 17

TICKETS: Free

PHONE: 202/885-1300

WEB: www.american.edu/museum

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