Artist Profile Story by Amy Newman
Before Connie Engelbrecht began creating sandcarved art tiles and etched glassware through her Brecht Studio in Eagle River, she worked for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources as a land use planner and coastal management advisor.
And she had no experience in the art world. “It wasn’t a hobby,” Connie says. “I had never done a craft show.”
In 1986, Connie and her then-husband were building a house. She wanted to be more involved in raising her children, but still needed to earn a living. She saw tourism as a growth industry and began visiting local shops to find a niche. What she found were lots of imported gifts and lots of Alaska Native art – but nothing in between.
“There just wasn’t a lot of people who could wholesale and make a profit,” she says. “They could do craft sales, but they couldn’t do production level.” Despite the difficult market and her lack of an art background, Connie, who loved working with her hands, decided to dive right in.
She started simple, making pressed wildflowers with stained glass borders. Stained glass quilt panels followed. Wanting to push herself creatively, she enrolled in art classes. Now, whether she’s making tile trivets, framed tile mosaics, a custom mosaic for a home or mural, or etched glassware, each piece begins with Connie’s hand-drawn original artwork.
Connie eventually combined her drawings with sandblasting, first learning how to etch her Alaskan-themed drawings onto glassware – her designs of a momma bear and her cub and a moose are the most popular. Tile work came next, as she honed her skill over years of trial and error.
Today, Connie works out of a 1,400 square-foot studio attached to her Eagle River home. A kiln, sandblasting machine and air compressor comprise one corner of the studio. Tiles in various stages of production are stacked throughout the space, while images of moose, raven and other Alaska wildlife peek through the rows of etched glassware that fill the shelves.
Whether a tile is destined for a gift shop shelf or is part of a larger, custom mural, Connie sandblasts and glazes each tile by hand, mixing the glazes herself in the studio. Each tile that comprises the small framed mosaics are hand-cut, with Connie laying them alongside smaller pieces of glass.
Connie uses about 16 main images in all of her non-custom tiles, but no two pieces are exactly alike. “They’re not identical,” she says. “The design element is the same, but they each come out slightly different.”
At 65, Connie has no desire to retire anytime soon. In fact, she is gearing up to launch a new product line that she hopes will help her “work smarter, not harder.”
Inspired in part by several custom murals she created for homeowners, Connie plans to introduce a new line of 6” x 12” porcelain accent tiles in abstract designs that homeowners can install in their kitchen or bathroom for a custom mosaic. The tiles, which she plans to make available online, will complement each other, and she’ll provide examples on how to assemble the pieces for a one-of-a-kind design.
Connie stresses that she started her business to earn a living, and not to “do art.” But while she may view herself as first and foremost a business woman, others view her as an artist, and are eager to display her work.
The downtown soup kitchen is home to a salmon mosaic mural she created. She’s had several pieces selected to be part of the Earth, Fire and Fiber juried exhibitions. This past summer, her original design for a tile mosaic mural was selected to be installed in Girdwood K-8 under the municipality’s 1% for Art Program. This marked the second time Connie’s work had been selected; in 2005, she was selected to install two murals in Eagle River High School.
For Connie, becoming the artist she is today may have started with a bold move – walking away from her state job with its cushy pension – but the benefits have paid off. “My life has been richer for the lifestyle, the things I’ve learned along the way in creating art, and being involved in my children’s lives,” she says. “So yeah, good choice.”