Nashville artist Wayne Brezinka was commissioned by the Washington Post to create an editorial portrait of Donald Trump. Although grateful for the assignment, he quickly found himself at the crossroads where creativity and conscience collide.
WORDS Elaine Slayton Akin
The emotion of a moment can sometimes blind us to perspective. In The Life of Reason, 20th-century philosopher George Santayana famously wrote, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness … and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” As our current political landscape feels more like a civil war than democracy in action—except that patriots are armed with the Internet and words instead of muskets and bullets—some solace may be found in knowing that, no matter how good or bad you believe Donald Trump to be, arguably a better and worse leader has preceded him. That is, depending on who is documenting history.
Likewise, political commentary in the form of art is not new. In fact, some of the most notable works of art in history were commissioned as political propaganda. Pope Julius II commissioned elaborate religious imagery such as the Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508–1512) to align himself with celebrated rulers of the past and allegedly used his military power to urge Michelangelo to return from Florence to his service in Rome. French painter Jacques-Louis David notoriously sympathized with three regimes over his prolific career: the Bourbon monarchs with Oath of the Horatii (1784), the revolutionists with The Death of Marat (1793), and Napoleon with Napoleon Crossing the Alps (1801–1805). More recently, Heinrich Knirr was Hitler’s official portraitist and the only artist to paint the dictator from life. Alternatively, he also taught several women and Nazi-despised expressionist painter Paul Klee.
Employment for an artist, therefore, doesn’t necessarily equate to personal allegiance. This is no less true today, especially in the context of the media. Nashville illustrator Wayne Brezinka has depicted celebrities from Willie Nelson and George Strait to Thom Yorke and Chris Stapleton in his distinctive Robert Rauschenberg- esque collage style. Until The Washington Post approached him this past December about creating a collage portrait of Donald Trump, Brezinka had never experienced a moral dilemma regarding a commission. Brezinka’s political leanings were definitely in the opposite direction, and his initial instinct was to say no. Over the period of a few days, however, he changed his mind. Brezinka’s inner conflict forces the question of the artist’s role in reporting the truth regardless of the topic, in recording what’s going on in the world (what will one day be history) whether he likes it or not.
Help us set the stage, Wayne. How does the process of collage affect a portrait specifically, as opposed to the more traditional realistic depictions in paint or graphite?
A friend suggested collecting authentic items to use in my first collage portrait [Abraham Lincoln, 2012], and the idea just kind of stuck. We’re all made up of different thoughts, convictions, and beliefs. The compartmentalization of humans translates beautifully to the portraits of humans. It simultaneously breaks down our complexity, yet adds a layer of communication within the image. From a distance, the subject’s identity is obvious, but up close we see the different parts of a person brought to life.
How did the Post approach you about the Trump portrait, and what was your immediate reaction?
I got an e-mail out of the blue from a Post art director two weeks before Christmas with the subject line “possible commission.” In his words, they wanted me because my portrait style is very unconventional, and we have a very unconventional president. I didn’t reply right away. For what would normally be a huge honor, I felt gut-wrenched, unnerved, and uncomfortable. I don’t really have an eloquent reason, other than the subject matter doesn’t sit well with me, and I wasn’t sure I had it in me to compose a gracious representation of the president-elect.
“We’re all made up of different thoughts, convictions, and beliefs. The compartmentalization of humans translates beautifully to the portraits of humans.”
Why did you eventually say yes, and how did you get to this point?
I realized, maybe I don’t have to like the subject matter. I sought advice from fellow illustrator Tim O’Brien, who produces editorial content for the most high-brow publications in the business—The New York Times, Mother Jones, and TIME magazine. In a nutshell, he explained that it’s our job as artists to best portray subjects in a natural, vulnerable state and let the public decide. It doesn’t mean I have to agree with them, but it’s my responsibility to capture people in their most human form. Then Tim said that if he were me, he’d take the assignment.
What found or repurposed items did you use to capture Trump?
I was very intentional to be as respectful and honest as possible. I included conventional Republican references, such as an actual program from Ronald Reagan’s 1981 inauguration [its gold presidential seal prominently displayed] and a sturdy red tie made from paint, cardboard, and other found paper. The Post sent me a “Make America Great Again” ball cap, which I cut up and used in the background. The Post also requested I use a clipping of its headline “Triumph of Trump.” At the same time, the tie has a “made in China” tag, reprints of Trump’s infamous tweets are sprinkled throughout the composition, and a faux-gilded wooden frame is deconstructed along half of the portrait’s edge. I was pressed to tone down the emphatic swoop of his blonde hair and the artificial tan of his skin.
Do you believe artists should be unbiased in the creation of their work? How does an artist retain his or her integrity while fulfilling the role of storyteller?
Under what circumstances? It varies. I mean, if you are collaborating on a feature story with a powerhouse news outlet like the Post, then yes. You have to be unbiased. For an op-ed piece, though, you could push the envelope drastically more. If you’re creating on your own volition, I hope artists would play by no rules. I know I don’t want to be considered safe. Always applying craftsmanship, intentionality, and quality—that’s how we keep from sacrificing ourselves no matter who the client is.
“Always applying craftsmanship, intentionality, and quality—that’s how we keep from sacrificing ourselves no matter who the client is.”
How has this experience changed you as a person and an artist?
I understand now that it’s possible to bring awareness without glorification. I’ve learned to deconstruct my own beliefs and passions so as to approach difficult commissions with neutrality. If I can look at Trump in a compassionate way and see his vulnerabilities, I can depict him as human. Take away his money and presidential title, and he’s just one of us. It would’ve been much easier to poke at his imperfections than to approach the portrait with the foresight that’s he’s still a person.
See more of Brezinka’s work at www.waynebrezinka.com. Our sincere thanks to the Washington Post.