This November, Latvia will celebrate its 100th year as a country. To honor that anniversary, Western Michigan University’s Richmond Center for Visual Arts has two exhibits by Latvian-American artists.
Altars & Myths by Sniedze Janson-Runģis
The first is by Kalamazoo’s Sniedze Janson-Runģis called Altars & Myths. Runģis says we all have altars — objects that we give special attention to.
“For somebody their altar might be their vintage corvette in the garage that they polish and love and for someone else it’s of their grandchildren lined up with other small items,” she said.
Runģis’ parents left Latvia during World War II to escape the Soviet Army. She was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany. When she was only six months old, her family came to the United States.
“I was really quite ill and we had these wonderful sponsors the Doyles, God bless them," said Runģis.
"The Doyles started feeding me potato chips and I recovered, which I think is really interesting. I still love those potato chips.”
As an adult, Runģis came to Latvia for a writers’ conference in 1990 — the week that Latvia re-declared its independence after being under Soviet rule. During her time there, she says she broadcasted news in English for a radio station and helped establish the country’s first English-language newspaper, The Baltic Times. Runģis has returned to the country several times since.
Runģis says her exhibit is made to look like an enchanted forest. In it there are guardian spirits, mostly made out of things she found in nature — sticks, seeds, stones, and animal bones.
One area is meant to look like a sacred birch grove. Runģis says, in Latvian culture, the notches in birch trees represent the eyes of their ancestors.
“Through the silver birch grove I walk, not a branch did I break. If I had broken a branch, I would walk silvered. I would walk weeping," she said, translating a Latvian saying.
"That just reflects that very careful progress through the woods, through nature, through our world.”
In her exhibit, she portrays Latvia as a wreath with small birds and eggs inside it. It’s placed precariously on a tall piece of birch wood — like it could fall at any moment.
“It’s a beautiful but also at the same time a very fragile culture. There’s only about two million Latvians in the world,” said Runģis.
That’s less than the population of the city of Chicago.
“Yet we possess an ancient culture with ancient knowledge that might very well be of great use to the rest of humanity,” she said.
Sniedze Janson-Runģis’ work will in the Richmond Center for Visual Arts through March.
Runģis’ exhibit is being shown alongside that of Illinois artist Rita Grendze — who’s also Latvian-American.
100 Signs For Those Seeking Light by Rita Grendze
Rita Grendze's work is made up of large panels of paper hanging from the ceiling in the Richmond Center’s atrium.
From a distance, they look like woven rugs — but get closer and you’ll see they’re actually made up of pages from Latvian books.
Grendze says books have always been special to her.
“When I was very young we lived in Canada, in rural Canada, in a town of about 300 people. So our books came via packages that were mailed to us from the library. We had to return them the same way. So getting a new book to read was always a special occasion,” she said.
Then, when her parents moved into a Latvian community in the U.S., she got to have Latvian books.
“It was like gold almost," said Grendze. "A lot of the books that we received during those years was when Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union.”
Last spring, Grendze was asked to create an installation for Latvia’s 100th anniversary — to be hung in the national library. Since her art is contemporary, she says she wanted something familiar in the work for Latvians.
So she cut up 100 books donated from Latvian people and made them look like Latvian tablecloth patterns. Grendze says it was great to see people recognize the books.
“'I remember this book from when it was on my grandmother’s shelf' or 'I donated this book, it belonged to my husband who’s now passed.' It’s a great way for people to have another connection to the artwork,” said Grendze.
Grendze says in times of political turmoil it’s hard to be positive — but we have to try.
“I think you have to find those ways to find that little bit of light, that one thing that you can grab onto and turn into a positive action,” she said.
Grendze’s installation will be in Western’s Richmond Center for Visual Arts through December.