Through adversity, raising a family, and even in old age, Emilie Benes Brzezinski has always been committed to her art—and, subsequently, to her chainsaw.
“The chainsaw was always going. If it wasn’t a chainsaw, it was an axe,” said Know Your Value founder Mika Brzezinski about growing up with her mother, who lives with her in Florida.
For decades, Emilie, now 89, has used her chainsaw to carve her signature, large-scale sculptures out of felled trees. On Thursday evening, Emilie was honored by the McLean Project of the Arts’ (MPA) virtual spring benefit auction. She had donated scores of her pieces to the MPA, located in Mclean, Va., where she lived until a few years ago.
Since the 1980s, Emilie has had about 70 exhibitions around the world, from Prague to Florence and across North America. Her pieces typically tower above the viewer, igniting the senses and showcasing nature in a manner that has been called “stunning” and “always vastly ambitious.”
Thursday’s tribute to Emilie featured a short video montage detailing her life and career, as well as her studio space in McLean. A follow-up panel starred all of the Brzezinski children, including Mika, Mark, Ian and his wife Ginny.
“She gave us a strong picture of what it was like to be a woman who knew her value and who was very, very proud of her identity as an artist,” said Mika during the discussion.
Emilie was born in Switzerland in 1932 to a Czech family. During WWII, the family moved to California as refugees. In the tribute montage, Emilie called California “paradise.” She was particularly inspired by her childhood trips to Oregon, where she would carve into washed-up driftwood.
Emilie married the Polish-born Zbigniew Brzezinski, who would become adviser to President Jimmy Carter.
“Our father was a scholar, a policy expert and an expert on foreign affairs. He was married to an artist who was working with wood and a chainsaw,” said Mark Brzezinski. “But they both fed on each other’s intellectual strengths.”
While raising her three children in McLean, Emilie sculpted constantly.
“We weren’t always first,” said Mika. “Sometimes the husband came first. Sometimes the art came first. Sometimes we did, but we weren’t always first. And it taught us an important lesson.”
Shortly after Zbigniew passed away in 2017, Emilie (and all of her tools) moved to Florida to be with Mika and her husband, “Morning Joe” cohost Joe Scarborough.
Emilie, who has Parkinson’s and has been dealing with the challenges of isolation during Covid-19, has found joy and resilience through her art. The tribute to her life, her art, and to her beloved McLean has been priceless to the Brzezinski family.
“This is probably one of the most meaningful things we will do as a family,” said Mika. “Dad would be so proud of us right now and this is exactly what he would want: Honoring her work and finding a place for it to be delivered, and for it to have exposure in different ways through MPA.”