John Srugis sits with his latest painting in his home art studio in Royal Oak Jan. 8.

John Srugis sits with his latest painting in his home art studio in Royal Oak Jan. 8.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Royal Oak resident celebrates Lithuanian roots through art

By: Sarah Wojcik | Royal Oak Review | Published January 13, 2022

 Srugis uses a fine brush to paint a Lithuanian streetscape.

Srugis uses a fine brush to paint a Lithuanian streetscape.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Srugis holds his painting of a man in Lithuania with his singing chihuahua beside his painting of Sedona, Arizona.

Srugis holds his painting of a man in Lithuania with his singing chihuahua beside his painting of Sedona, Arizona.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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ROYAL OAK — Overcoming and succeeding despite adverse circumstances is a common theme in the life of Lithuanian native John Srugis, 72, and his family.

Now a Royal Oak resident and business owner, Srugis’ backstory includes being exiled to Siberia on a 16-day cattle train ride when he was 1 in 1951, settling in former English military barracks in Germany when he was 9, and migrating to America with his family when he was 12.

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, beginning in the rural Siberian village where his family lived in a log cabin and worked on a communal farm as commanded by Soviet Union forces.

“My interest in art started out of necessity. I always wanted to be creative,” he said. “I started to draw because there was not much to do to occupy your time. No television, no radio, no toys. We started drawing sketches and made our own toys. If I couldn’t have anything, I made it.”

Some toys came with life lessons, such as when Srugis scarred his fingers using knives to make crude skis for recreation in the frigid winters. He sketched scenes of daily life in Siberia, including men chopping down trees and vehicles being loaded with logs, and later painted watercolor cartoons in Germany.

After his family relocated to Michigan from their original landing point in Waterbury, Connecticut, Srugis said the only formal art class he took was in high school, and he turned down an art scholarship to Michigan State University.

At the time, he recalled thinking that fine art was not a lucrative field, although rewarding, so he pursued an engineering career through an apprenticeship program with an engineering company.

“I wanted to be creative, but I got another part of the creativity, I guess, in designing things in the industrial sector,” he said. “So then I dabbled from time to time in oil paintings.”

After getting married, his artistic passion helped to furnish the couple’s home. 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.

 

Getting out his paints again
“I gave up painting back in 1985, and so then recently I had the itch to paint, especially before the pandemic,” Srugis said. “I was going 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 proceeded to create a masterful painting of a photo of an old grist mill he snapped on a trip to his home country of Lithuania. The mill is located in the town of Naumiestis, where he was born and his father and grandfather were known for building structures, furniture and pipe organs.

“I said, ‘OK, I haven’t forgotten too much, actually. I kind of like it,” Srugis said. “I thought I’d be really terrible at it.”

In 2007, Srugis and his wife had the opportunity to visit Lithuania for the first time since Srugis’ family was exiled, a visit that he described as “really emotional” and “really exciting.”

“We went back to the village where I was born and I found the same old house that 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 a grade school that (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 that his grandfather built.

When the pandemic rolled around, Srugis said he was working from home and “bored half the time,” so he filled his time with painting and learning a new style — photorealism, painted on a primed panel of medium density board.

Many of his paintings feature nature landscapes or streetscapes from his travels, mainly Lithuania. He has also been commissioned by family to do paintings, and he recently finished 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 on a place to eat.

“He stood up and I asked if I could take a picture,” he said. “He said, ‘Of course,’ and he picked up 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 trust for its owner. He deliberately kept the background in focus to add to the slice-of-life city aesthetic.

His process for many of his paintings set in Lithuania includes a deep dive into the streetscape, researching the businesses and restaurants down to the names and menus in order to capture the most authentic feel of being there.

 

Remembering his childhood
One of his pieces 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 an electricity-generating station and grist mill instead of working the fields.

“From that day forward, they came through and put the telephone poles out there and brought electricity to people’s homes,” he said. “They loved him for (bringing them electricity and a much-needed grist mill).”

He said the villagers, including some who remembered being ruled by a czar, mostly minded their own business and accepted the 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 visited a “spiritual healer”; with no police, the biggest threat was being robbed; and his family grew their own food in a government-sanctioned plot, Srugis said.

Srugis’ father, David, believed they were exiled because someone informed the communists that he was listening to Radio Free Europe, which was banned in Soviet-occupied Lithuania.

“We were considered the bourgeois and the Bolsheviks didn’t like that,” he said.

Srugis speaks Lithuanian, German and English, and he said he used to speak Russian fluently.

“I forgot a lot of it, probably for good reason,” he said. “I kind of resented what they did to my family.”

Srugis said his hobby of painting is therapeutic, and he believes it helped him get through the lockdown portion of the pandemic.

“It was very scary, the unknown, so that helped me get through it,” he said. “My wife handled it better than I did. She’s a strong person. But for me, this COVID stuff had me all riled up, so I escaped to my artwork.”

Right now, he is working on a large streetscape of his favorite Lithuanian city — the capital, Vilnius.

“I do it because it feels good inside. It’s for me,” he said. “When I retire, I’m hoping to make it into my second career, like go out, take some photos for inspiration and paint, maybe travel a little bit. That would be fun.”

Bruno Srugis, John’s elder brother by six years, lives in Clarkston. He corroborated John’s recollection of events from the past.

“John takes after my grandfather, who painted a self-portrait in oil that I have in my dining room,” Bruno said. “He is good painter and the best brother. We are very close.”

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