SNIEDZE* (sni-yeh-dzeh) RUNGIS

*SNOWBIRD in Latvian

I was born in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany after my parents had fled a brutal Russian onslaught in Latvia during WWII. When we emigrated to America, I was six months old. Because a special dispensation allowed families with infants to fly over the Atlantic rather than sail, I did not arrive 'straight off the boat' as is common in American lore. I have always suspected that this rapid aerial descent into America has had a mythical and positive effect on my ability to change course rapidly. My family settled in the Midwest, where I was raised as a bi-cultural product; our language at home was Latvian, which I still speak, read and write, and English I learned to speak within three weeks after entering kindergarten; I yearned to play, so I learned. When in second-grade a teacher grabbed my arm, pulled my hair and insisted I never speak Latvian to my brother again - "You're an American now! Act like one!" - I learned to whisper, not give up what was precious to me, but hide it until it was safe to unearth. Generally, Midwesterners were unaffectedly kind. When I was 11, I received my naturalization papers and all the neighbors celebrated. The stunning war stories of horror my parents recounted were in stark contrast to these gentle, easygoing surroundings. I have solid roots from having grown up a Michigander. And I have an acute sensitivity - rooted in the sorrow of my parents' loss of country, home and family - towards those who become the Displaced in this world. My mother Valija Rungis had been a doctor in Latvia, but spent the rest of her life devoted to her family. Every night, when my brothers and I were children, she read to us from her vast collection of Latvian folk-tales. These stories became the building blocks of my internal world, and the sound of my mother's voice was the conduit to the world of dreams and visions. My father Aivars Rungis was an exile writer, but gave us our daily bread and college education by working 14 hour days in a factory. I honor their courage. My parents refused to bring a TV into our house, convinced it would stunt the mind. As a result, I became an omnivorous reader. I devoured every book I laid my hands on. Ironically, it was a book that ended my studies in fine arts and English literature at Western Michigan University. Shortly before graduating, I read in a book that knowledge of life resides elsewhere than in books. Since I had already begun to skip classes, seeking that mysterious knowledge outside the world of structured curriculum, in an interpretation of this advice that seemed only practical at the time, I left the 'walled garden' of the university to encounter life directly. Ignoring warnings that I was headed for the University of Hard Knocks, I armed myself with Kerouac and Hoffer and D.H. Lawrence and stepped out 'on the road'. "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom", as William Blake observed. My sojourn put me directly in the path of some sterling teachers. With great joy I became their apprentice, doing well in one-on-one learning situations. I garnered the myriad opportunities that America's hyphenated multiculturalism serves up. I studied Shintoism with Japanese-American Michio Kushi in Boston, Navaho spirituality with Navaho-American Eugene Beyale Spirit Eagle in Shiprock, New Mexico, martial arts with African-American Stanford Williams in Michigan City, Indiana. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, I studied the craft of theater with German-American Dr. Krieglstein and English-American Dr. Tom Small, comparative religions with Hispanic-American Dr. Irene Vasquez and printmaking from Czech-American Ladislav Hanka. Admittedly, there were some books: Brecht, Artaud, Boal - to name a few. The Navaho teach the importance and sacredness of the Circle. With the circle in mind, I returned to school to finish what I had once abandoned. I applied to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was accepted and awarded a merit scholarship. There are other circles whose circumference I wish to travel, inscribe and complete.