Have you ever met someone who, after the first conversation, makes you feel as if you know them better than most of your friends? That's what it's like talking with Maja Ruznic. She is incredibility self-aware, sharing every part of herself, including her more beautifully, tragic moments.

Maja often rides the metro to her studio when she is not teaching at the Hope Center For The Arts in Anaheim. She works with adults who have various intellectual challenges, such as Autism, Down Syndrome, or William's Syndrome. She learns a lot from her students and says watching them paint reminds her to keep a childlike freedom in her own work.

Her studio is fully saturated in color. Her work, which ranges from water mediums to paintings, to sculpture, fills the walls. We caught her as she was carving out the figures and negotiating the edges of a heavy blue mark in the painting entitled Pile. Maja is an immigrant from Bosnia and was shuffled through multiple refugee camps with her mother when she was very young. She shared with us how this experience has shaped her perception. Engaging themes of violence, abandonment, and despair, she draws inspiration from the people drudging through the streets or a couple sleeping together on a bench. She captures emotion through her application of color and form, intentionally creating discomforting moments in her paintings. Needless to say, Maja Ruznic views the world through a unique lens. 


Maja Ruznic will be having a solo show at Jack Fisher Gallery, in San Francisco in October.  

Posted on April 21, 2016

Interview by Britt Harrison

Photography and Videography by B. Justine Jaime


I was in my first refugee camp when I was eight or nine years old in Klagenfurt, Austria. I remember playing in this sandbox when all the other kids were in the playground. The sand was warm and I liked the feeling of the heat pressing against the back of my legs.  

It was a sunny day and I remember the sensation of squeezing the sand in my hands and looking up at the sky. That was my first memory of experiencing my surrounding in a completely intoxicating way. I think that was the moment I knew I would become an artist. 


It was April 1992. I was in the third grade. My mom and I were living with my grandparents, because my parents separated before I was born. I remember that morning was like any other. I was supposed to go to school, but my grandmother told me it was not safe. In the prior months, the adults were glued to the TV, and I had this feeling that something was going to burst. I was helping my grandma with the dishes when the sirens started wailing. People were running down the street. My grandmother grabbed my hand and managed to pull down some clothes that were drying on the clothing line. We ran to the Sava River and were amongst the lucky ones who made it to Croatia. That day, I didn't know that I wouldn't come back to Bosnia for seventeen years.

My mom was at work that day and I was really scared because she wasn't with us. I don't remember if we were separated for a few days or a few weeks. Memory is funny like that. I was playing with some other kids at camp when I saw a faint figure walking towards us. I knew it was my mom. I recognized her long jacket and her black, puffy hair. I ran down the street and jumped into her arms. 

We had to keep traveling, but my grandparents didn't want to go. They said even if they died, they'd rather die in their own home, so they decided to go back to Bosnia. I'll never forget that day. We were sitting in the back of the bus and I remember waving to my grandpa. His body was getting smaller and smaller as the bus drifted away. My mom and I rode to Klagenfurt. The building we stayed in was a convent. It was a large, gray, oppressive looking building. We shared everything there —bathrooms, food, clothes. Eventually, we moved to San Francisco in 1995 with the help of the International Rescue Committee.  


I wouldn't say that my work is about my childhood. I would say that being a child refugee and growing up as an immigrant has influenced what I'm drawn to. I look at stains, garbage, homeless people, the shapes that are made up by people when they stand next to each other, the sounds in certain parts of the city compared to those in others. I cry often and am moved by pretty much anything. I love sadness and melancholia and am not afraid to feel things deeply.  

I pay attention to violence, especially to how women are abused in times of war.  War rape is a weapon that lingers and infects generations.  The woman's body is a site and a parallel battleground to the soil. One thread that weaves through my work is this concept of intergenerational trauma, and how violence leaves stains on an individual, which are passed down. 

The act of painting is an opportunity to record and dismantle my reactions to the world that I live in. How does the body feel pain?  What is a pained body?  These are questions I grapple with in the studio.   


If you strip away the people who act in these wars, usually men, and even the families that are fleeing, these kids that are drowning, what would remain? I have this image of soil, of earth, sucking it all in. That's where everything returns. So ‘Soil As Witness,' my most recent body of work, looks at soil as a historical sponge, an exhausted blueprint, flooded with memory. 

I returned to large-scale oil painting after five years of working solely with water-based media. I conceive of the landscape as a body, just as I do the figures that it spontaneously generates.  Relying on color rather than line, I create a community of psychopomps, intermediary figures who transport dying souls from this world to the next.  Soothers of discomfort, these exhausted bodies represent intergenerational trauma and how it is manifested in the flesh. 

"The Wailing Sisters" oil on canvas 70x78in 2016 - Image from

"The Wailing Sisters" oil on canvas 70x78in 2016 - Image from


I'll make a quick mark and then I'll be more deliberate about the next mark, so there is not this "Jackson Pollock" bombardment of the canvas. It's almost like a sense of uncontrollability and then tightening, chaos and then reason. I begin by staining the surface and rubbing in the initial layers of paint.  I take frequent breaks where I sit down and look at what I have done and try to find sense in these initial layers.  I also flip the paintings around a lot as I work, committing to an orientation only when something compositionally important becomes clear about the piece.  



After I graduated, I was painting really small because I couldn't afford a studio. Then in 2011, one of my tiny paintings made it on to the cover of New American Paintings. It just made me realize, as long as you have an urgency to make art, it doesn't matter how big it is, or how nice your studio is. You just need to make the damn thing.

"The Attempt to Soothe a Broken Heart" mixed media on paper 7"x5" 2011 - Image from

"The Attempt to Soothe a Broken Heart" mixed media on paper 7"x5" 2011 - Image from


I had a five or six-year long love affair with paper. It started out with portraits, then the figures started interacting with each other and eventually, I started embedding them in various environments. My works on paper are narrative even though the stories are non-linear.

I want this new body of work to evoke a more immediate and emotional response in the viewer. I think I needed a challenge. You can't rely on accidents as much with oil paint. I love water-based media, because they spill and puddle and so much beauty happens on its own. With oil paint, you have to be much more decisive.  I became tired of all my tricks with ink.  Trickery, I realized gets in the way of sincerity, which is a quality that is more important to me now.


I think everyone has their own innate frequency. It's an accumulation of what they've been through, how they've grown up, and how they've been talked to. That's what make's people interesting. I'm acting as this conduit of these different energies in my work.



I have this joke that I don't think any idea is that great. It's more about what you do with the material. Then an idea may evolve out of that. For me, that's more interesting.

The way I approach painting is very sensory and immediate. I pull my characters out of the marks I have on the canvas. It's not premeditated. I don't do any drawings or sketches. I lay down a color that captures the mood I'm trying to create. I've tried working with references, but I feel like they get in the way of playing with the material, so I usually just work from memory. My work is very much about my relationship to my environment, and to the people around me.



My mom lives in San Francisco, she actually got me this dress. She refurbishes clothing for a living. She often sends me things that she can't sell and I'll use pieces of it in my sculpture. Her opinion about my art means so much to me. She is very invested. I want to make her incredibly proud, and this gives me strength.