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Grief Is Hard to Look At: An Interview with Wayne Brezinka

I had the privilege of talking with Wayne Brezinka, one of my favorite Nashville artists, about his current project: 2020 Disrupted. In addition to being a delightful and thoughtful interview, it was Wayne’s very first Zoom experience! After much laughter and figuring out which buttons do what, we settled in for a chat.

Tell me about your project. You’re feeling the weight of it. How long have you been working on it?

The sketch and the idea came to me about six years ago. I was sitting in the service at our church, and the pastor was talking about Job. I’m so conceptual and visual that I began to wonder what Job might look like in our context, and I kind of tucked that idea away. When my father-in-law came to visit about a year later, I shared my vision and asked if he’d be my model. He said, “Sure, what do you want me to do?” He’s very up for anything. He’s in his late 70s. I hand him a pair of Nike shorts and say “Here, put these on.” And he’s like “Great!” So he took everything off and then sat on this chair in my living room and I photographed him, sitting on the floor, because I wanted to capture this figure with some scale, from the ground up. I sketched him out shortly after that. I took his photographs, compiled them together, taking what I felt were the most vulnerable shots.  He was great. I had him lean on a broomstick, I had him look up desperately, I had him be angry at the sky and stuff. I combed through those images and I picked the ones that I felt might translate well and convey this idea. And then it sat. For five years.

When the pandemic hit in March, and everything shut down, the idea came back… 2020… Job, pulled out of ancient texts, plopped into current circumstances. Modern Day Job, as a springboard. My vision is to use the story of Job, of loss and sorrow and pain, to capture what people are feeling, to give a visual landing point to this year.

I’ve followed your work for years… Johnny Cash, Mr. Rogers, birds, magazine and newspaper illustrations. I’ve never seen you do a Kickstarter. What led you down this path?

With most of my work, I just create. I’m inspired and so I do it. Creative people, during this pandemic, have really had to pivot and struggle well at figuring out how to pay their bills and still do what they do best. I fall in that category. My wife said to me, “We can’t spend any more of our own money on this project. You’ve got to do something different.” So I turned to Kickstarter. I’ve never done Kickstarter before. Before I dove off that cliff, I called people. I called Andy Gullahorn, Matthew Perryman Jones, Steve Taylor, and several other of my artist friends who have done these things and been successful. I asked them what to do, what makes it good, how do you navigate these waters… you know, everybody had their own nuggets of truth. It has scared the shit out of me. I describe myself as running off a cliff. I’ve lived on the cliff for years, like a bird with its mouth open. But now I ran off the cliff, and I’m still going, “Hey!” (gestures with hands out like he’s begging for food)

There’s this figure in front of me, this dollar figure, and it’s really jacking with my serenity. But there’s this quiet voice I hear that says, “Trust me.  Trust me.” I don’t know how it’s going to work. I don’t know if it’s going to work. And if it does—that’s great. If it doesn’t—there’s another plan. I keep coming back to this, “Trust me. Trust me.” I mean, to be uncomfortable is what you want, right? If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re not growing and you’re not moving forward. And sometimes it hurts, really horribly. This week’s been really difficult. I hit a wall on Monday. I was in tears. The forecast on Wednesday, here in Nashville, was beautiful and I thought, “I’ve gotta take the day off and go to my sacred creek.” So I asked Matthew Perryman Jones to go and we just hung out at the creek, put our feet in the water. I swam, we built a fire. It’s where I’ve found God this year, in a way that I’ve never really experienced before.

I guess by making a modern day, 2020 Job, maybe I’m inviting people to feel their sorrow and their grief. I don’t think that we, in western culture—in the United States—do that very well. When people are invited to feel and grieve and lament, that creates a space for something bigger to come in, something more beautiful. We hold onto these things—I’ve held onto these things for years, you know—but letting them out, and being seen by others, by your friends or your family or your loved ones, and your witnessing their grieving—the communal aspect of it—is important. That’s what this project is about: grieving. It’s an invitation to people to consider—what is it that’s been so difficult for me this year? It doesn’t matter what side of the aisle you’re on. It’s not about political stuff at all. You can’t look at 2020 and say that it hasn’t been difficult. It’s been hard. So that’s my vision, my hope—that it would stir people. Once it’s created and built, I get such joy from getting out of the way. My hope is to have a parking lot tour with this thing in a glass truck and let people come up to it and let it speak to them.

Have you seen this?

Yes! I’ve seen it several times, on your Facebook and Kickstarter. It’s so evocative.

The look on his face is what I love—he looks vulnerable, desperate in a way, helpless. There’s a power to it.

Wayne, will you talk to us about what you’ve used to make him? One of the things I love about your pieces is how much you incorporate into them.

Yeah, so, what you’re seeing right now I call a prototype. One of the things I realized, as I was laying out this campaign, is that people aren’t going to grasp my vision with a pencil sketch. I needed to build a prototype. So I started to build parts of it. I work with cardboard…you can see cereal boxes, foam core. How do you modernize Job? His skin color is dark toned, which it would have been and I wanted it to be. You know, we don’t need anymore elevated white men. And the ear buds—I found those important. Everybody has those and tattoos, in 2020. His hair is made out of farm rope, which I soak in water and then pull apart and paint. It’s simple, but it works. You can kind of see some newsprint. There will be more added… he’s in the very beginning stages.

You referenced him as a prototype. Will you actually use this head in your piece?

I think so. It came together so beautifully one Sunday afternoon… why change it? Why not just use it, and the energy that’s in it? So, I probably will. I’ll add to him, though.

What about the hand that I’ve seen? I believe it’s holding something?

Yeah, right now it’s holding a measuring tape. It’s a broom handle, or it’s going to be. I’m debating about whether to put an actual broom handle on top. Again, modern day, right? What would he be hanging on to? Not a stick. It’d be something from the garbage heap, like a broom handle.

There’s also this little ray of hope, this blue bird, which I think represents hope. It’s made out of cardboard and foam board; you can see the cereal boxes. This is the little ray of hope that would be on his broom handle.

It feels like you are in a waiting period. You’ve started your Kickstarter, you’ve got your prototypes, you’re waiting and hoping for it to be funded so you can pull the trigger…what are you doing while you wait?

Ugh. Marketing. I get up, and I think about who I can reach out to, who I can call, to bring them to the site and hopefully get them to contribute. That’s consuming a lot of energy that I don’t like. Another aspect is asking for help. It’s hard for people to ask for help. It’s hard for me to ask for help, you know? So I’m like this, right? (mimes holding up his hands like he’s begging for food) That’s how I spend my days.

You said that one of your goals for this piece was for people to get to feel their grief. It sounds like you’re kind of paving the way.

Yeah. Yeah, I think you’re right. You know, a friend of mine said that I’m carrying the weight and the grief of a lot of people. I feel like I just want to make this piece to get it out of me, but instead I’m in this waiting period. Waiting for this thing to succeed—but it may not succeed. I hate to even say that, but it’s a reality. But I can’t stop moving towards that goal, and doing what I can do to reach it. It’s tiring. You know?

You’re having to spend your time in something that’s not your first love. You’re having to spend your time with all your energy invested into marketing. You’re a creator, not a marketer. No offense! Your marketing material is fantastic. The video on your Kickstarter is so good.

That’s thanks to Drew Darby! Drew’s a filmmaker out of Philadelphia and he is a wonder boy. He’s 24. He did that video for me and I couldn’t be happier.

I noticed one thing in your plans for this piece that is different than what I’ve seen in your previous pieces—there’s an integration of technology. Tell me about that.

It initially started with ancient texts, pulled out and plopped into real time. How are we living? We’re living like this, on Zoom meetings and phone meetings and computers. That was definitely something I wanted in this piece. So how do you incorporate it? There are going to be two or three computer screens, iPhones, put in the trash heap. They will be looping submitted photographs from the public who want to be a part of this piece.  That doesn’t cost anything to submit. Anyone who has a photograph or a story can go to my website and just submit to me and that will be a part of this loop. Now, if you want to contribute a physical item—that’s part of the rewards on Kickstarter. When you get to certain reward levels, then you can send in a piece. The photographs and the technology, I think, will be really powerful to see. I mean, what has this looked like for you, for the public? Is it your family? Your spouse? Your kids? Coworkers? Trips you’ve taken in the woods? It could be anything. I’m excited about that, and I hope that it takes off. I hope that people participate and send in their images.

Is there anything else that you want to tell people? Or anything that you want people to hear from you before your piece gets made?

Yeah, I’m really curious what has been one of the most—if not the most—disruptive moments for people. That’s a question that I ask on the Kickstarter and on my website. What, for you personally, has been the most disruptive thing this year? Some of the emails that I’ve received have blown me away. People are sharing that they feel lost and sad and lonely. That they don’t have a car. Kim Fisher shared that, “I’m deaf. I read lips. I can’t hear you.” This is what’s on her mask. That just blew my mind. She said that her world begins to feel smaller and smaller each day because of the masks.

My friend, Dan, sent me a picture of himself in tears the day his Covid hit.

He was afraid that he was going to die. He couldn’t breathe. He was afraid to go to sleep. So this is what’s been coming into my inbox. That’s what I’m interested in from the public. I want to hear from them, I want to hear from people—what is your story? What has been difficult for you? That’s been very affirming, because it tells me that this piece is connecting with the public. It’s a landing point, an opportunity for people to move into their own inner landscape. It’s terrifying, sometimes, to go inward. I want to invite people, to show them it’s okay to follow your fears. On the other side, there’s going to be a beautiful opening, a beautiful space that will be filled with something better.

How are you feeling about the items you’ve gotten?  I’m picturing you trying to wade through your studio, with all the things that people are sending to you. Does it feel overwhelming?

Well, I’m excited about it. I have not received a lot. When people contribute on the campaign, they’ll have the opportunity to send me their items on the back end. I don’t know what’s coming yet. I’m excited. I have received a pair of crutches from a doctor who fractured his hip. He slipped on his bike. That was a big disruption for him. Let’s see, what else… oh! Another friend of mine is an ER doctor, and he sent me a set of sutures…

Is that what is stabbing Job?  I’ve seen in your sketches that there’s a pair of scissors.  That’s the part that gives me the heebie jeebies.

That’s a good point that you bring up! It’s a pivot for me. You know, most of my work has been wholesome and pretty. And now I’ve got screwdrivers and knives in a body. These sharp objects are representative of today. I’ve been nervous about how that would be received. You are not the first to bring up that it’s difficult to look at. It is. It’s hard to look at. 2020 is hard to look at.

Grief is hard to look at.

Yeah. Grief is hard to look at. And then I think, you know, if we’re going to be honest about the Gospel… Jesus hanging on a cross is graphic. Hard to look at. So I go, “yeah, Wayne—keep moving.” I feel this voice, “Keep moving forward.” It’s hard. But it’s gonna take one of these things for people to go “ohhhh.” And then they’re either going to move away from it, because they are so uncomfortable, or they’re going to move forward and go, “Ohh I don’t like this, but what is this telling me?”

And be drawn in to it. Which is another really great response.

Yes! So when I sit with it long enough to realize that it’s graphic…but that’s okay… then I go, “This is what I want!” I want to stir people, you know, so I’m excited about that direction of the work and where my work will go after this. I’ve thought about exploring darker elements of… perhaps the Gospel… or just life in general, that are important and move me. Artists create work that tend to bring up things in their own lives, and ultimately open the door for other people.


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