Having a blast
Connie Engelbrecht’s house, tucked away down the valley, doesn’t look like an artist’s sanctuary. Her ‘organic doorbells’ (two dogs named Hank and Aspen) greet people at the door and there are metallic decorations scattered on the lawn. It’s a simple house. But the studio attached is one of a kind. Open, high ceilinged, framed by windows, and colored bright yet simple, Brecht Studio is where Engelbrecht creates her sand-carved art.
“I started the business not because I had a hobby and wanted to expand it,” Engelbrecht said, “but because I wanted to work with my hands.”
Originally a Land Planner for the Department of Natural Resources for the State of Alaska, Engelbrecht worked on plans, typed documents, and even gained her master’s degree in Natural Resource Management during her seven-year job. But she became dissatisfied with her work and quit, deciding to pursue artistic venues instead.
In the beginning, Engelbrecht did stained glass that incorporated dried flowers. “I got really good at it,” she said with a smile. But she soon realized the equipment needed to do stained glass could hurt her down the road and decided to go with sandblasting instead. Engelbrecht essentially taught herself. She took a few classes at UAA, but for the most part, “I went about the process of creating and eliminating things and I’ve gone through various stages of products because I’ve been doing this for twenty-seven years,” she said.
Unlike the customary glassware, most of her craft is done on Italian tile and porcelain in the form of mugs, trivets, and ornamental decorations. The depressions in the tiles are caused by a hard blast of aluminum oxide grit, which is then filled with different colored glazes and fired in the kiln. She mixes her own glazes (a trial and error process, she said), takes walks out in nature to glean inspiration and still gets excited when she opens the kiln.
Yet it’s more than just art for her, it’s a business as well. Engelbrecht sells her pieces as tourist souvenirs, an Alaskan-made gift to share with friends and family back home.
“I wholesale. I have a production line and I’m full time. This is my only income. I have to make choices to be production efficient,” she said.
However much she’d like to be a full-time artist, she also has to be a businesswoman and that’s a hard life to balance. Yet, while the hours are long, she said she’s been able to set her own schedule and plan around her life with her kids. She’s been able to go to hockey games, to be active in school, and to read stories at night. She would do it again in a heartbeat, “with less time at the State,” she said, laughing.
Her pieces are both practical and artistic.
“It’s the history of art – you look at the native art, you see all the carvings but it’s functional,” she said, “It makes more sense.”
Her customers, loyal to the Brecht Studio for many years, even have a say in what she makes and will point out when Engelbrecht veers too far over to the art for art’s sake realm.
“I listen to them,” she said, nodding. “It’s great to have feedback.”
Even after moving the Studio from the main drag in Eagle River to her home studio, her customers still followed her. But, she admitted, it was time to shorten the list. She’s actively trying to downsize the business, no longer advertising or looking for new customers yet still producing enough to keep herself afloat.
Engelbrecht wears many hats. She’s also an active biker, hiker, traveler and coffee-drinker. This past summer she went to Holland on a Bike-Barge trip, one in which bike-riders toured the countryside by day and stayed in a floating hotel at night. She’s planning another one to Italy next summer.
“I have a great set of friends,” she said.
As for the future, Engelbrecht said she’s nowhere near retiring. But, she said she’s also trying to balance work and play.
“I’m trying to figure out how to work smarter than harder,” she said.
She might be working until her golden hair turns gray, but until that time Engelbrecht will continue to create her pieces for sale.
“My art…is a reminder, it reminds you of an experience that you shared with somebody,” she said. “To me, if it brings back the emotions and feelings of their trip then it serves its purpose.”
Kellie Doherty is a freelance writer from Eagle River. Write her at firstname.lastname@example.org.