December 1, 2023

Her marriage to Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, gave her entree to Washington’s political and diplomatic elites. But artist Emilie Brzezinski said she was often happiest in her McLean, Va., studio, creating looming sculptures from tree trunks with chisels, axes and several prized Stihl chain saws, which she wielded well into her 80s. She preferred the whine of power tools over the patter of the cocktail party circuit.

Mrs. Brzezinski died July 22 at her home in Jupiter, Fla., at 90. She had Parkinson’s disease, said her daughter, Mika Brzezinski, co-host of the MSNBC program “Morning Joe.”

Mrs. Brzezinski exhibited in the 2003 Florence Biennale and in the 2005 Vancouver International Sculpture Biennale. Her only public sculpture, a bronze casting of a piece carved in wood called “Arch in Flight,” was put on display in D.C. on New York Avenue, close to the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Mrs. Brzezinski said she liked to carve trees that had “a story to tell” — that were stunted or struck by lightning — and then to work with nature rather than against it.

“No matter how many chain-saw and chisel marks she leaves on her rough-hewed sculptures, they never lose their connection to the living forest,” Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott wrote in a review of Mrs. Brzezinski’s 2014 exhibit at the Kreeger Museum. “Brzezinski’s wooden forms are refreshingly disconnected from the business and distraction of contemporary life.”

Emilie Ann Benes was born in Geneva on Jan. 21, 1932. Her father, Bohus, was a Czech diplomat, and her great-uncle Edvard Benes was twice the country’s president. She moved with her parents to London at the outbreak of World War II. In 1943, the family moved again, this time to California, after crossing the Atlantic in a U.S. convoy that was targeted by German U-boats and hit by a torpedo.

Mrs. Brzezinski graduated in 1953 from Wellesley College with a degree in fine arts, then worked at one of Harvard’s libraries, where she met her future husband — the offspring, like her, of an exiled diplomat of Central European extraction.

They married in 1955 and moved to McLean in 1977, where Mrs. Brzezinski ran their six-acre suburban property like a small farm, with dogs and ducks and her daughter’s horse, which she welcomed into the house for the annual Christmas party.

“It added a little humor,” she told The Post.

In her later years, Mrs. Brzezinski used her art to reconnect with her roots. It was “an effort at finding who I really am,” she told The Post. In working on a series of Brobdingnagian sculptures called “Family Trees” that featured photos of her relatives, she said she came to understand her identity was half Czech and half American.

In a 2014 piece, titled “Ukraine Trunk,” she combined her personal history with the geopolitics that had always preoccupied her family, pasting inside a hollowed trunk a photograph of unsmiling upturned faces in the square in Kyiv, questioning a future made uncertain by Russian aggression toward Ukraine.

Her husband died in 2017, and she later moved to Florida. In addition to her daughter, survivors include two other children, Ian Brzezinski, a Republican consultant in Washington and former deputy assistant secretary of defense under President George W. Bush, and Mark Brzezinski, a lawyer and the U.S. ambassador to Poland; and five grandchildren.

In her art, Mrs. Brzezinski celebrated the connections between her fellow human beings and the natural world.

As she told the Wellesley alumni magazine: “To the casual observer, a tree is vertical and straight. But on careful study, most trunks have a basic movement, what I call the essential gesture. I am always amazed at the parallels between human gesture and the gesture of a tree.”

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