Maja Ruznic

“Money can’t buy you happiness.” Sadly, it wasn’t long ago that my response to that idiom was, “Well that must be something rich people say.” From the start, we’re taught that there’s value in the things that earn us money. I’ve shared my belief, in What Do You Do?, that people are much more than their professions. The ideal, however, is that an individual is able to make a living doing what they love. This Friday’s dose of inspiration comes straight from a woman who’s forged a career out of her passion for art.

When I reached out to Bay Area Artist, Maja Ruznic, I did so because I was totally inspired by her story. Born in Bosnia & Herzegovina in 1983, Maja and her mother came to the United States as refugees in 1992. Maja went on to receive two degrees from UC Berkeley and compete as a member of Cal’s Track and Field Team. All the while, she continued to explore her love for art. Maja describes her most recent drawings and paintings as that of:

« People, objects and memories of experiences that evoke a sense of failure and trigger a sense of psychological unease that echoes my childhood refugee experience. In documenting these people, objects and events with highly editorialized and projected-upon personae, I am simultaneously preserving them and destroying who they actually are.” ( her artistic statement)

Her passion and talent have garnered her much success and she was recently awarded the 2012 cover of New American Paintings. I’m drawn to telling and exploring the stories of people who have the courage to acknowledge and pursue what they love. In interviewing Maja, she impressed me even more. I was amazed and pleased to find that, beyond her overcoming the struggles of being a refugee to go on and receive a diploma from a prestigious institution, her current professional success as an artist was never fueled by the promise of financial return. She’s done what she has for the love of her work and nothing more. Perhaps that’s why she’s found such a warm welcome in the artistic community. Maja never asked what the work could do for her, she’s constantly creating and innovating to see what she can give back. As such, her paintings and drawings are as honest, nuanced and compelling as their author.

Thankfully, I got the chance to ask Maja about her work and sources of inspiration:

When did you realize that art was your passion?

I remember being obsessed with drawing ever since I was 6 years old. I used to be more worried about my art class projects in middle school than my math exams and always knew that this was a bit unusual. There was a strong urgency to draw, to record things, people and events around me. I suppose it was from a very early age—this urgency to capture what was happening around me. Aside from painting and drawing, I was always very interested in dance, music, and theater—creative languages that elevate life to some extent.

Was there ever a doubt in your mind that you’d be able to professionally pursue your artistic work? If so, how did you work beyond this?

My desire to paint was never driven by the belief that I would ever make a living as an artist. I love to paint and draw—this was always true and that love has brought me to where I am today. I studied Social Welfare (Psychology emphasis) and Art at UC Berkeley and wanted to work with children upon graduation. Art was always something I did for fun.

After graduating from Cal, however, the need to push my ideas stood in the way of becoming a Social Worker, so I started working on a portfolio. I kept myself financially afloat by taking on odd jobs and working up to 7 days a week. I had a corporate job for a brief moment, thinking that the financial stability would make my life better. I quit after just one week, knowing that it was not something I was meant to do. I went back to doing retail and teaching as much as I could. Despite the drastic decline in my monthly income, I was much happier—and this happiness allowed me to continue making art. There have definitely been moments where I felt that I was perhaps wasting my time—but this is mainly because I was comparing my life with my friends’. Many of them were getting married and started buying houses. Perhaps there was something wrong with me, I thought. Going to the California College of the Arts, however, was a transformative experience. I realized that my life would be dedicated to ideas, images and aesthetics and the traditional comforts no longer concerned me. This realization in itself brought great relief.

Where do you go/what do you do when you’re in need of inspiration?

I pay close attention to everything that is around me. I never know what will trigger a set of ideas. It could be something a friend says, or something I hear on the bus. It could be a limp I notice in a stranger’s walk or a color I see on a building. For the most part, I am interested in personifying emotions, thoughts and feelings—things that don’t have a physical form but can be intensely felt.

In what way has your work helped you confront the complexities and realities of your experience as a refugee?

I started painting and drawing before the war. I was about eight years old when the war started and I began drawing when I was about 6 years old. Mark making (I’ll call it that and not differentiate between painting and drawing) was something that brought me great joy and, in retrospect, I see how this creative outlet was psychologically very nurturing. I don’t remember making pictures about the events that were happening around me (in a journal-entry type of way), but the act of making marks on paper and creating pictures was extremely transformative and cathartic.

My work has become a way through which I attempt to de-tangle my childhood and its impact on my adult life. Today, painting and drawing are tools through which I speak about things that are difficult to express with words. There is magic in this process—in the discovery of new ways of communicating with others.

Do you have any advice for aspiring painters?

Stay curious, question everything and start forming your own theories! The most challenging aspect of being an artist can be to stay inspired and the best way to do this is by surrounding yourself with positive people. Listen to your intuition–if something feels important, it probably is! What new symbols can you give to the art world?

Maja Ruznic, the other woman, 2013, Mixte Technique on paper, 20 x 15.5 cm
Maja Ruznic, the other woman, 2013, Mixte Technique on paper, 20 x 15.5 cm


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