Hanging at a small college just outside of Nashville, Tennessee is a portrait of a boy with very welcoming eyes: They just draw you in.
It’s not your typical portrait, though — if you look closely, you can see that those eyes, along with the rest of the boy's face, are made from an assemblage of multiple mediums, including photographs, socks and letters.
Wayne Brezinka, a Nashville-based artist known for using mixed mediums in his artwork, created the piece as a tribute to Zach Sobiech after receiving an email from Zach's mother, Laura, earlier this year.
Zach, who won hearts (and topped charts) with his song "Clouds," was just 18 when he passed away on May 20, 2013 after battling osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. His story, which went viral last year, inspired millions and even led to a celebrity-filled tribute on YouTube.
Laura reached out to Brezinka, a hometown friend of her husband's, roughly a year after their son died. She'd seen a portrait the artist had crafted of Abraham Lincoln, which hangs in the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C., and wanted him to create a portrait of her son from the mementos he'd left behind.
“I just thought it was a shame that they were all in a box,” she told TODAY.com of the objects she found in her son's room after his death.
The decision to give Zach’s belongings away, even for the creation of this kind of portrait, was more difficult for his father, Rob, and for some other members of his family, but Laura Sobiech wanted to share Zach’s life the world.
“I was honestly quite honored,” Brezinka told TODAY.com of being asked to create the artwork, originally reported by Nashville Public Radio. “It was a big undertaking, in my mind, because he was no longer with us. And it was for the family, so I wasn’t quite sure how that would unfold. But I agreed to do it.”
Over the summer, Laura Sobiech sent Brezinka a FedEx box containing various artifacts of her son’s short life: a T-shirt he and his girlfriend made; a medal featuring St. Peregrine, the patron saint of cancer; a train ticket from his dream trip to Paris; sheet music for his song “Clouds”; the string from a football; a tie he wore as a groomsman; the bracelet he received at the hospital when he was born, and more. She wrote a description of each item in the box and explained the relevance to Zach’s life.
“I knew I could trust him with the piece,” Sobiech said of the artist. “I knew I was asking a lot of him, that that was a lot of pressure for him to take on.”
The two communicated occasionally while Brezinka was working on the portrait, for clarifications or confirmations because he had never met Zach.
One of the biggest concerns Brezinka had was in capturing Zach's eyes correctly, after his mother shared that they were one of the most important qualities about her son. His eyes, she explained, were the windows to his soul, and she could tell how he was feeling just by looking at them.
“I don’t want this portrait to end up in their home and have them think it doesn’t look like him,” Brezinka said.
At one point, the artist had already constructed part of Zach’s face when his family told him he couldn’t use so much texture because it wasn’t going to look like as youthful as they remembered their son.
“It caused a bit of hesitancy,” Brezinka said. “I said a prayer, and had to trust that it would come together.”
Brezinka finished in July before going on vacation with his family. When he returned, he sent Sobiech a photo of the finished product.
“I cried for two days,” Sobiech recalled. “It was fresh; it was something I hadn’t seen before. Anytime you see something new like that, it just stirs you up.”
“It meant the world to me that there was enough emotion and power captured in it,” Brezinka said.
On Oct. 3, Brezinka displayed the portrait as part of an exhibit at Tennessee's O’More College of Design. Laura Sobiech and her husband attended the opening of the gallery along with family friends, where she saw the portrait in person for the first time.
Brezinka offered a full tour of the gallery, and just as they began, she looked down a hallway and saw them: her son’s eyes.
“He nailed it,” Sobiech said, emphasizing how impressed she was with the artist's ability to capture Zach’s eyes. “Just took what I gave him and ran with it and got it.”
Sobiech wanted the portrait to be about more than just her son’s death and illness; she wanted it to be about his life. “Zach wasn’t just about cancer,” she said. “Wayne really wove together Zach’s life.”
When the exhibition ends Nov. 5, Brezinka will send the portrait to the Sobiech family, where they plan to share it with their church parish in Minnesota, “a whole community of people who knew and loved Zach,” Sobiech said. But the final resting place is still unknown.
“I would love to have it displayed with children,” Sobiech said, adding that a school or the hospital where he was treated might be a suitable home. “I just want it shared in some way.”
If Zach were to see the portrait, his mother said, he would have likely found looking at himself to be a little strange, but would have appreciated Brezinka’s craft.
“He loved that kind of thing, he was intrigued by that kind of thing,” Sobiech said. “I think he would have loved the art because it's something so engaging.”