With color-splashed, mixed-media portraits of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and Russian President Vladimir Putin, an art exhibit by a Minnesota-born artist called "Facing War" is on display at a boutique hotel across the street from the Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

"It's not meant to be a finger in the eye of the Russian people," said Wayne Brezinka, 53, a graduate of Upsala High School in Upsala, Minn., not far from St. Cloud. "I hope it's more contemplative, a chance to reflect on Russia's invasion of Ukraine."

Brezinka, who lives in Nashville, was asking himself what the war had to do with him. Then his cousin in Minneapolis, Kristi Brezinka Wacker, sent him an 1894 wedding photo of their Polish great-grandparents, who immigrated to Minnesota in the late 1800s.

The photo shows mustachioed bricklayer Urban Brezinka and his veiled and stern-faced bride, Anna, who left central Europe in their 20s. They got their marriage license in Little Falls, where Urban laid the bricks for many of the local buildings, and farmed near Opole in Stearns County, according to Kristi, who's researched the family's genealogy.

The research was easier said than done. Census records from 1900 to 1940 spell Urban's last name as Brzeimka, Brzazenka, Brzezinka, Brezinka and Brezezinka, Kristi said, listing both Poland and Germany as the land Urban emigrated from in either 1889 or 1892. Anna Pelsick, about four years younger than Urban, came from Poland, although it's not clear when.

Urban's birthplace is "one thing that has always puzzled us," Kristi said. She unearthed his Morrison County citizenship certificate, signed Nov. 21, 1894 — the same day the two were issued a marriage license. On the citizenship form, Urban claimed German roots and renounced "forever all allegiance" to any foreign leaders, particularly "the Emperor of Germany."

According to family history, the Brezinkas took their name from their hometown of Brzezinka in southern Poland — about 250 miles west of Lviv, Ukraine, in an area now swamped with war refugees. Urban apparently served in the German army before leaving for Minnesota, Kristi said, but he spoke Polish rather than German.

"We are guessing with shifting borders that the true heritage is Poland," she said.

Urban and Anna had six kids, two of whom died in infancy in the early 1900s. Anna died of unknown causes in 1909 at the age of 38, and is buried at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Cemetery in Opole.

A widower for his last 43 years, Urban built a home in 1927 at 3618 6th St. N. in Minneapolis, where he lived with his youngest child, Julia, until his death at 85 in 1952. He's buried at St. Anthony's Cemetery in northeast Minneapolis.

"Family stories say he always valued hard work," Kristi said. "And he always liked it quiet."

Urban and Anna's second-oldest child, John, married Johanna Kostreba in 1923. They produced 20 children, including Wayne's dad, Daniel, and Kristi's father, David.

"My family history was always out there, but didn't feel alive until Kristi sent me that wedding photo of Urban and Anna," said Wayne, whose art show runs through May 15 at the Glover Park Hotel in Washington (waynebrezinka.com/facing-war).

As Star Tribune columnist Jennifer Brooks noted a couple of weeks ago, the hotel's proximity to the Russian Embassy has attracted protesters and prompted managers to display a huge Ukrainian flag out front. When they asked Brezinka if he'd like to use his artwork to comment on the conflict, he jumped at the chance. That, in turn, prompted his exploration into his Polish roots.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine evoked for him a "visceral, emotional connection to my lineage from that area," Brezinka said. "I saw those devastating images that looked like ashtrays of land, and felt drawn and curious about my ancestors whose shoulders I stand on."

After graduating from Upsala High in 1987, Wayne studied graphic design at the technical school in Staples, worked in a Little Falls nursing home and spent time at a Duluth ad agency. He moved to Nashville in 1993, designing logos and album covers until striking out on his own as a freelance artist. He also teaches, helping veterans and nurses use art as an outlet for coping with stress.

When asked what a Nashville artist's show in Washington has to do with Minnesota history, Wayne replied: "Everything. This is my way of expressing my grief over what's happening in Ukraine to all my ancestors. We all ask ourselves, 'What does this faraway war have to do with me?'"

The answer, he said, rests in the connections we have that link the past to the present through people such as his great-grandfather, Urban Brezinka — those "who define who we are in so many ways."

Curt Brown's tales about Minnesota's history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at mnhistory@startribune.com. His latest book looks at 1918 Minnesota, when flu, war and fires converged: strib.mn/MN1918.