ROYAL OAK – Overcoming and succeeding despite adverse circumstances is a common theme in the life of Lithuanian John Srugis, 72, and his family.
Now a Royal Oak resident and business owner, Srugis’ story includes his exile to Siberia on a 16-day cattle train journey when he was 1 in 1951, settling in a former barracks English soldier in Germany at the age of 9 and his migration to America with his family when he was 12 years old.
Srugis has enough stories to fill the pages of a book, but the one constant in his life has been his creativity and innovative nature, starting with the rural Siberian village where his family lived in a log cabin and worked in a communal farm controlled by forces of the Soviet Union.
“My interest in art was born out of necessity. I always wanted to be creative,” he said. “I started drawing because there wasn’t much to do to occupy your time. No television, no radio, no toys. We started drawing sketches and making our own toys. If I couldn’t have anything, I did.
Some toys came with life lessons, like when Srugis scarred his fingers with knives to make rudimentary skis for recreation in freezing winters. He sketched scenes of daily life in Siberia, including men felling trees and vehicles loaded with logs, and later painted cartoons in watercolors in Germany.
After his family moved to Michigan from their original landing spot in Waterbury, Connecticut, Srugis said the only formal art class he took was in high school and he turned down a art scholarship to Michigan State University.
At the time, he recalls thinking that fine art was not a lucrative, albeit rewarding, field, so he pursued a career in engineering through an apprenticeship program at an engineering company.
“I wanted to be creative, but I got another part of creativity, I guess, designing things in the industrial sector,” he said. “So I tried my hand at oil painting from time to time.”
After her marriage, her artistic passion contributed to furnishing the couple’s house. After the birth of his second son, he converted his art studio into a nursery, so for a time family life took precedence over painting.
Take out your paintings
“I gave up painting in 1985, and so recently I’ve had an urge to paint, especially before the pandemic,” Srugis said. “I was rummaging through my old tackle box with my old oil paints. I unscrewed the caps, and the paint was still good after all these years.
The year was 2019. He found an old canvas and created a masterful painting from a photo of an old flour mill he took while traveling in his home country of Lithuania. The mill is located in the town of Naumiestis, where he was born and where his father and grandfather were known for building structures, furniture and pipe organs.
“I said, ‘OK, I haven’t forgotten too much, actually. I like that,'” Srugis said. “I thought I’d be really bad at that.”
In 2007, Srugis and his wife had the opportunity to visit Lithuania for the first time since Srugis’ family was exiled, a visit he described as “really moving” and “really exciting”.
“We went back to the village where I was born and found the same old house I was born in,” he said. “We went to the cemetery to see my great-grandfather’s grave, and we saw my grandfather’s house. He built a beautiful house in the early 1900s which the Soviets later turned into an elementary school which (was still open at the time).
He added that they also visited the church in which he was baptized, where he touched the ivory keys of the impressive pipe organ his grandfather built.
When the pandemic hit, Srugis said he worked from home and was “bored half the time”, so he spent his time painting and learning a new style – photorealism, painted on a primed board of medium density cardboard.
Many of his paintings feature natural landscapes or streetscapes from his travels, mainly in Lithuania. He was also commissioned by his family to do paintings, and he recently completed a painting of his cat.
Srugis and his wife took their two sons and daughter-in-law on their second trip to Lithuania, during which Srugis stopped to ask a man sitting on a park bench with a chihuahua for a recommendation of where to go. to eat.
“He stood up and I asked if I could take a picture,” he said. “He said, ‘Sure’ and he took the dog and the dog started singing to him.”
In the resulting painting, he said he felt like he got to know the man as he painted him, capturing his love for his pet and the Chihuahua’s confidence in his owner. He deliberately kept the background in focus to add to the urban aesthetic of the slice of life.
His process for many of his paintings set in Lithuania includes a deep dive into the streetscape, from researching businesses and restaurants to names and menus in order to capture the most authentic feel of being there.
Remembering his childhood
One of his works is a colored pencil drawing of the Siberian village where his family lived, which Srugis created 30 years ago from memory. His father volunteered to use his talent to build a power plant and flour mill instead of working the fields.
“From that day on they came and installed the telephone poles and brought the electricity to the houses,” he said. “They loved it for (bringing them much-needed electricity and a flour mill).”
He said the villagers, including some who remembered being ruled by a Tsar, mainly minded their own business and accepted exiled families, who were largely from Lithuania and Latvia. The Communists, Srugis added, banned religion and converted an old church into a grain silo, so those with faith had to practice secretly and alone.
For ailments, the villagers consulted a “spiritual healer”; without police, the greatest threat was theft; and his family grew their own food in government-sanctioned land, Srugis said.
Srugis’ father, David, believed they had been exiled because someone had informed the Communists that he was listening to Radio Free Europe, which was banned in Soviet-occupied Lithuania.
“We were considered bourgeois and the Bolsheviks didn’t like that,” he said.
Srugis speaks Lithuanian, German and English, and he said he is fluent in Russian.
“I forgot a lot, probably for good reason,” he said. “I kind of felt what they did to my family.”
Srugis said his hobby, painting, was therapeutic and he believes it helped him through the pandemic lockdown.
“It was very scary, the unknown, so that helped me out,” he said. “My wife did better than me. He’s a strong person. But for me, this COVID stuff pissed me off, so I escaped to my artwork.
At the moment he is working on a large streetscape of his favorite Lithuanian city – the capital, Vilnius.
“I do it because it feels good inside. This is for me,” he said. “When I retire, I hope to make this my second career, like going out, taking pictures for inspiration and painting, maybe traveling a bit. It would be fun.”
Bruno Srugis, John’s older brother by six years, lives in Clarkston. He corroborated John’s recollection of past events.
“John takes after my grandfather, who painted a self-portrait in oil that I have in my dining room,” Bruno said. “He is a good painter and the best brother. We are very close.”