In Conversation: Interview with Wayne Brezinka

Published March 13th 2024
Interview by Justin Stokes

When summarizing a person’s life, one can reduce a subject’s character to a few succinct adjectives. But does such a description capture the person’s essence? 

For Nashville illustrator and visual artist Wayne Brezinka, a person’s character is found in the interplay between conflicting and complementary characteristics. His multi-dimensional, large-scale portraits capture the conflict and complexities of being human, as well as the generally interesting facets of a person’s life. 

Wayne’s unique process of painting and creating mixed media works incorporates found and repurposed objects, some of which have a direct connection to the subjects featured. These artworks are colorful, textured pieces that maximize the details of the subject, which are found after an extensive bout of research. 

Wayne’s work is recognized internationally. This includes acknowledgment from organizations such as the Society of Illustrators, a list of media clients that features names like The New York Times, Universal Music Group, and POLITICO Europe, and being part of notable collections such as those of Vice President Al Gore and country music superstar George Strait.

Our interview with Wayne is below. 

One important example of this is “Mister Rogers: Just The Way You Are” interactive portrait experience. Utilizing both two and three-dimensional elements, this piece assembled memorabilia and other objects to give viewers across the country a deeper look at the iconic television personality. Photo Courtesy of the Artist

Justin Stokes (JS): To anyone unfamiliar with your art, how would you describe your work?

Wayne Brezinka (WB): The people who see it online refer to it as paintings. I often hear, “I enjoy your paintings! They’re really amazing!” But when they see the work in person, they share with me that they’re dumbfounded! Many people have no idea that my works are tactical, 3-D pieces that incorporate different found objects, some of which have personal significance to the depicted subject. 

It’s been a challenge to communicate to people online that these works are meant to have depth and complexity to them. Much of what I use is repurposed materials like found objects or cardboard, but I also use adhesives and acrylics. It’s a hybrid of sculpture and painting… I would say that my work is very similar to that of Robert Rauschenberg. I’m inspired by a lot of his stuff. It’s hard to pinpoint how I would describe.

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

JS: I’ve gathered from some of your past interviews that you like showcasing a child’s perspective in your art. Despite being a grown adult, you choose to honor how people see things when they’re younger. Is it fair to say that the creation of the work mixes a sense of seriousness with the purity and playfulness of a child?

WB: That’s fair! And, I teach a lot of combat veterans who’ve never done art in their lives prior to sitting down in one of my workshops. They’re always concerned about trying to do their art the right way. I tell them, “There’s no right or wrong. And I’m not interested in what you create. I’m more interested in what’s happening for you emotionally as you’re making the art.” 

And 99% of the time, their artwork blows me away! And they have no academic education or professional training on how to do things. Neither does a child when they try their hand at art. They’re just trying to explore the canvas and explore an idea. 

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

JS: If art is meant to be some sort of depiction of an emotional truth, then following how the masters made a particular work may not be the best approach. 

WB: I’m very much after an emotion, both through teaching in my workshops and making my work. With my work, I’m attempting to go after the emotion of something in a very sophisticated way. The work is made to open people up to what we think and feel as humans, but aren’t necessarily sure how to express to each other. 

People should be aware of—and in tune with—whatever idea it is that they’re drawn to, and they should make it a point to not talk themselves out of it. This is something I struggle with, as I can easily talk myself out of an idea or concept because I feel like people won’t understand it. 

There are fleeting moments in my studio where I feel so connected to myself and to this higher, bigger universe—whatever it is, people may call it God if they want—but it’s in those moments where things are clicking on all cylinders. It’s fleeting, it’s like a few seconds, but it just gives me goosebumps to be in the middle of creating something. And when I’m with my students in a workshop, I encourage them to follow that feeling. Don’t stop it. If you’re bogged down in your head, you’ll overthink the idea, and you’ll tell yourself “Well, I have to make this tree green and the grass green” instead of just listening to your inner voice. 

JS: Even with the roughly thirty years that you’ve been making art, it sounds like it’s still tough to fully trust your process, and that it will lead to an impactful experience with audiences. 

WB: Yeah, I mean, it’s an invitation right? Whenever you make a piece of art and deliver it to the world, people are going to react and respond however they choose to. Even if your work suggests certain things, you can’t force someone to perceive your art in one way. Which is the beauty of it, I think. Because if someone is ready to receive a message, they’re going to be open to it. You have to be open and ready to receive that spark that someone else has created. 

And it’s hard. I just finished this really large portrait of a friend of mine who is a combat veteran. He sent me boxes of his stuff that dated all the way back to when he was three years old. Birthday cards, little birthday cake football player toppers… He’s 55, he’s my age now, so this stuff goes back to the early ‘70s. So I’ve been using all of these objects and curating them for this portrait of him and his service dog. The art is finally finished, but once it’s delivered to him, or once it gets out there in the world, it will take on a life of its own.

With as much passion as I’ve put into it, I just hope that people feel the energy from it. With all of the intricacies of those little items put together that represent different moments of this veteran’s life, it should give off energy to viewers. It’s pretty special when you put all of these things together. There’s story and energy in each of those objects, but when you bring that energy together as a whole, it creates a larger energy force that I want people to feel. 

And I was shocked that he saved all of this stuff from fifty years! I asked him, “You mean you kept all of this stuff?” And he told me, “Man, I’m sentimental.”

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

JS: You’ve stated previously that you’re drawn to faces as an artist. Let’s discuss this.

WB: I think, honestly, it’s me trying to find myself. I’m attracted to certain people and certain faces. I notice faces probably in ways that many other people don’t. It’s in the intimate experience of working on a portrait that I’m reminded of how much we’re all connected… But it’s really just me trying to find who I am. We’re all connected. I am you, and you are me. Studying faces has helped me to find this breadcrumb trail back to myself. 

I like doing portraits and working faces, but every now and again I branch out and do something else, like a landscape piece.

JS: So, the subtext to your work is that if you’re depicting George Floyd, Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, or a child victimized by a mass shooting in a classroom, you feel a tremendous amount of empathy for each of these people because you could have easily been them?

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

WB: I think so. And it could be any of us in, say, that classroom chair who narrowly survived or were attacked in a mass shooting. We shouldn’t think of these circumstances as something that will never happen to us. That creates barriers [and reduces] empathy.

We all bleed red blood. If you look past the skin color of George Floyd, you can easily see yourself in his position. I want to communicate that idea to people in a way that’s not blatant, instead letting people naturally see themselves in my work. There’s a bit of Carl Jung’s philosophy in what I do.

JS: You’ve stated in the past that when you make a piece of art—be it an individual, one-off piece, or something that’s part of a series—you have to put trust in the audience. You have to have faith that they will both understand and appreciate what it is that you’re doing. Were there ever any moments in which you were surprised how your work was received? 

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

WB: Yes! There was a piece that I did during the pandemic. It focused on the story of Job from The Bible, for which I used my father-in-law as the model. 

In making this painting, I wanted to interpret it in a modern-day context. That was my whole concept: What would the story of Job look like in modern-day terms? So rather than sores on his body, I used sharp objects piercing his skin, like knives and scissors. And I gave him this look that had a sense of defeat. Not that he was dead, but that he had been beaten down so much that you could see it instantly.

This piece wasn’t as well-received as I had thought it would be. It turned a lot of evangelical people off. I thought to myself, “Well, I get it, I guess… but read your Bible!” Read all of the stories in The Bible that are graphic… And that reaction kind of surprised me how people would crumple up their noses at the painting and go, “Ewww! It’s hard to look at!”

That’s the whole point! And look: People could see their own doubts in it, which would be great! If people see that and go, “Gosh! Did this really happen? Was this really true?” Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know. But visually, it does stir up feelings in people that surprise me. Which is great! As an artist, you want your work to be both well-received and to generate some sort of pushback. It's that pushback that allows people to take themselves on a personal, inward journey with the hope that maybe, just maybe they're willing to take it. And perhaps while on that journey, they'll ask the tough questions of themselves.

JS: It’s like that particular piece shows certain Christians that they may have missed the broader themes in The Bible.

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

WB: One hundred percent. And I can see myself in those people, and hopefully, if they’re open enough, they can see themselves in me. We’re all connected. 

To be fair, I can sometimes get irritated by certain beliefs of evangelical Christians. But I can only push the envelope with them so far. Past a certain point, I’m doing it because I have a problem, which would then put the failure on me.

JS: You’re saying that “In an age of polarization, Irft4r  want to avoid being perceived as extreme or unnecessarily divisive.” Pushing an audience past the point of no return through your art ultimately alienates them, and shuts down any sort of meaningful dialog long before it begins.

Photo Courtesy of the Artist

WB: That’s right.

JS: You have a background in helping American veterans suffering from combat-related PTSD? Let’s discuss this.

WB: I love helping our veterans. It’s one of my favorite things. This effort started six years ago. I went to an art show in Hendersonville at the Monthaven Arts & Cultural Center. My son was ten at the time, and I took him with me. I was intrigued by the idea that combat veterans were going to be unveiling their artwork at this show. I just found that interesting, and didn’t know anything else about it. Making it to the show, I was dumbfounded! There was all of this incredible art. I was seeing these clay portraits, and these paintings and sculptures and things. I asked around, “Who put this exhibition on?” One of the people introduced me to Richard Casper, the co-founder and executive director of CreatiVets, who was there at the show. I told him, “This art is so raw and powerful! Do you work with artists?” And he said, “Yeah, we tend to work with only the best artists in the country.

Anyway, we corresponded for a little bit, and then finally had lunch. And he invited me to begin teaming up with them and teaching some of their veterans. I was flattered by the invitation, but I asked him “You know, I’m not a combat veteran. And I’ve never been to war. Will they trust me?” And Richard said, “The only way they’ll trust you is if you’re honest with them. And you tell them your own story, your own trauma.” And I said, “I guess I can do that if that’s what you want me to do!” 

I have my own trauma, which I’ve talked about openly and made art around as well as done a lot of therapy around. I’m comfortable sharing that in a group format with people, in the hope that it will open somebody up, and maybe transform them. It’s my superpower! And teaching and leading in these workshops, I have a whole format that I unfold. But I lead with my own story in the first 30 minutes of these workshops, and you can see that the room changes. People lower their defenses, and their hands fall to the sides of their chairs. It allows me an in, and by the end of the workshops—some of which are two days—people are pulling me aside. They want to talk to me and tell me about how they’re making art around their own trauma. And it’s not necessarily combat trauma. Some of these veterans have compound trauma from earlier parts of their childhood, and that may be what they’re working out. Those traumas have driven them and may have been what compelled them to enlist in the armed forces in the first place. These traumatic events have driven them to become who they are.

Knowing all of that, it’s extremely powerful to watch these individuals create art. Some of them have never created art before. They’ll send me poems, and thank me for opening up. But their level of creativity, it just blows my mind!

One of my veteran friends recently visited me for lunch. They told me, “You are one of the reasons I didn’t take my own life.” This individual had a suicide note written before they sat in my class. In the first few hours of the class, they were telling themselves, “Eh, I don’t know if this art thing is going to work.” Between the second and third hour, their mind had changed over to “Well, maybe… .” After the third hour, the art class had won him over to the point of deleting his suicide note… That’s one of many people in the veterans' art classes who’ve shared with me that they’ve considered taking their own lives. 

So, as an artist I not only have the power to create my art, but I can use that power to help other people, open mental doors for them, turn the light on in their eyes, and make sure that they’re still here. It’s so rewarding to be able to help another person and tell them, “Look, there’s a reason to stick around! And there’s a way through. Let’s go over here and discover something hopeful through making art.”

And my veteran friends have found something hopeful. They’ll send me paintings that they’ve done and poems, which I proudly display in my studio. They also text me regularly, and it’s just incredible. I absolutely love it. It’s great having something else to focus on besides your work and being able to put your work aside. Being a facilitator for such awesome creativity is a great reward. 

JS: It’s interesting because bonding with battle-hardened veterans by way of vulnerability goes against what you might expect. And from the sounds of things, your work has had quite an impact.

WB: I hope! People fly in from all over the country to take those classes in person. Everything is paid for by CreatiVets. And this year, one of the things I’m hoping for in 2024 is the opportunity to teach more, just because it’s so rewarding. I love the relationships, and doing that work just puts a new perspective for me on life by showing veterans their gifts. I mean, we all have gifts, and we should use those gifts to help make the world a better place.

JS: Regarding your art projects for 2024, I know that there are some projects that you’re currently working on that you’re keeping under wraps… but what can you share with readers of NUMBER, Inc.?

WB: I’m about to begin this large project for a certain company on Music Row. This will be a series of nine separate pieces. This will take me a few months to create these, but I’m excited about that project. This will let me interpret the artists in a way without attaching them to specific labels, moreso pulling from general characteristics that might be found in the music lyrics of the artists.  

There’s more coming that I can share at a later date… but right now, I’m just working on what’s in front of me. I’m also currently shopping for an agent to help me reach a wider audience.

JS: As of late, who or what inspires you?

WB: Nature. I love to be outside! There’s a creek that I visit that’s about an hour from where I live that I spend a lot of time at. I camp. I read poetry. I go swimming. I take friends out there to have some beers. Being out there puts your soul at ease in the context of “We’re here on Earth for but a brief moment.” And just connecting to the trees, the open air, and the crystal clear water, all of this reminds me that we live in a world that’s much bigger than our problems and that those things that we get so upset about don’t really matter.

When I’m in the creek, I just practice floating, looking up, and opening my hands. Nature not only helps us connect to the good in the universe, it also helps us reconnect to ourselves.

JS: On the subject of connection, you are the father of three children. Has your creativity been passed on to them?

WB: They have it, but they would argue that they don’t. My youngest child is sixteen, he’s very creative. He’s currently a junior in high school, but in his sophomore year, he made this cardboard hamburger in art class. It looks real, though. And he brings home these drawings that he does that you wouldn’t believe are freehand. But it’s no big deal to him. 

Like I said, they’re all creative, but they don’t pursue their creativity as a job. My daughter is 25, and she likes to do pottery now. 

The interesting thing that I’ve found about being an artist—and I’m 55 years old now, so I’ve been able to see enough of this over my lifetime—is that many creatives will just give up. It’s such a difficult path, and to find the strength within yourself to keep going, to keep knocking on doors and trying different opportunities. And this is true across a wide variety of creative fields. Many people give up because it’s too difficult. There are more hard days than easy days. 

I’ve not given up. And because of that, people look at me and go, “You’re highly successful!” And you could say that I’m successful and have had some incredible luck, but I’m not rich. For years, I looked at monetary success as the metric for artistic success, and I would always tell people who thought that I was successful that I wasn’t. But over time, I can look back on my art career with gratitude and say, “I am successful. I’m very successful in terms of the opportunities that I’ve had, and where my artwork has been published or exhibited,” and all that stuff. 

But for young, working artists who don’t see that success and just give up, that’s a depressing and sad thing. I get it, but you can only get to a point of success if you’re willing to tough it out.

Wayne Brezinka (American, b. 1968) is a contemporary artist, living and working in Nashville, Tennessee. A native of Minnesota, he pursued formal art training and honed his skills in the graphic design field, creating iconic packaging for some of Nashville's most successful recording artists prior to his now full time career in fine art.  

Wayne's unique style of portraiture incorporates detailed mixed media and assemblage techniques applied to discarded and repurposed materials. His process includes research into the stories of his subject's life and work, and acquisition of rare, personal ephemera to incorporate into the portrait. The result is a portrait that reflects not only the visage of the subject, but also provides a breadcrumb trail the viewer can trace to engage with the complexity of the individual behind the image.

Justin Stokes is a freelance writer living in Murfreesboro, TN. Since 2012, he has covered the
Nashville media market, writing about music, visual art, technology, business, politics,
entertainment, and real estate. His work has been featured in national publications, and he has interviewed hundreds of celebrities, including comedians, musicians, authors, actors, and entrepreneurs.