Michael Kruzich: mosaic moments with the local artist

  • by Jim Provenzano
  • Saturday April 22, 2023
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'Triton' mosaic and artist Michael Kruzich with 'Still Beating,' his 2015 'Hearts in San Francisco' commission
'Triton' mosaic and artist Michael Kruzich with 'Still Beating,' his 2015 'Hearts in San Francisco' commission

Spring Open Studios finds opportunities for artists, fans and potential collectors to meet, greet and enjoy in-person experiences. Hunters Point Shipyard hosts the studios of dozens of artists in a variety of genres, with Open Studios on April 29 and 30.

One artist in particular, Michael Kruzich, works in the rarified genre of natural stone and Venetian glass called "smalti" mosaics in murals, landscapes and portraits. A former professional ballet dancer, Kruzich shared how his performing arts background led to his current successful career as a mosaic artist, or mosaicist, who combines classic styles with both contemporary and timeless mythological imagery.

'Zephyros e Hyakinthos' (2008) by Michael Kruzich  

Born in California and raised in rural Iowa, Kruzich studied film animation at Columbia College in Chicago.

"I was a big 'Star Wars' fan, and my big dream was to become a special effects animator work for George Lucas," he said in an interview with the Bay Area Reporter. "Then I studied for a little while in Chicago at Columbia College for animation. While I was there, I took a dance class and it made me want to explore that direction before committing to animation. I went back to Iowa and enrolled at University of Iowa as an open major with my eye on performance and theater. I happened to take a ballet class that was for men only. My teacher was Francoise Martinet, one of the original Joffrey Ballet members. After about a year and a half of studying, I was hooked and decided that this was fulfilling, and the way I wanted to go."

After almost three years of training, he landed an apprenticeship with the Boston Ballet.

"After that year, I got into the company and stayed there for about six years." From there he went on to dance with Ballet West-Salt Lake City and Washington Ballet-DC. After freelancing in New York City, he eventually moved to San Francisco, where he danced with Smuin Contemporary Ballet and in San Francisco Opera productions.

Asked if he was out as gay during those years, Kruzich said he gradually realized and came out while dancing in Boston.

"I was lucky that, in the environment of a ballet company, I was possibly spared some of the rejections and abuse that other environments could bring at that time. There were plenty of other gay men in the ballet world, and no one cared one way or another or treated you differently."

Three of Michael Kruzich's drag portraits; Sister Roma, Sylvester and Garza  

Life transition
Asked how he made the transition to working in mosaic and visual art, Kruzich said, "I always had some kind of creative art on the side. I don't have a lot of formal art training. It all came together through theater. I did some costume work, creating with fabric, and all forms of stagecraft."

By the time he reached his mid-forties, Kruzich, now 59, said, "I was reaching the end of my dance career, and I was really nervous about what to do next. I was choreographing a little bit."

Encouraged by his friend, fellow dance and mosaicist Gregory Dawson, Kruzich visited his studio for a while before trying to make his own works.

"I tried a little bit of mosaics and kind of got hooked," he said. "Then I decided to go to Ravenna, Italy and train more seriously. I trained in the Italian traditional mosaic method. Now, I mostly make my living at it. I still occasionally do theater design as a sort of fallback job. But I haven't done that work for a couple of years now. I've had either commission work or teaching."

Kruzich's subjects range from traditional works that resemble museum pieces to contemporary portraits of notables like Sister Roma, the late Garza, and singer Sylvester, part of a dozen in a series of drag portraits.

"The traditional techniques transfer to other subjects as well," he said. "Most of my work is figurative or symbolic. I do some abstract work, too. The principles also apply to abstract contemporary work as well."

Asked how he works with the materials, Kruzich explained, "Most of the stone that I use is cut in strips from what you would think of as just a regular 12-by-12 tile. The 'smalti' is a special opaque glass produced for mosaics for hundreds of years in Venice. I then cut them down to smaller pieces. I use the traditional tools of hammer and hardie; the same as the ancients used to cut each tesserae to shape by hand."

Three mosaics by Michael Kruzich  

The sheer durability of his work is remarkable as well.

"Since some commissioned works are set outdoors, they have to be weatherproof," Kruzich said. "Depending on where the mosaic will be set — indoors or outdoors — different modern lightweight substrates are used for the appropriate location."

What are his favorite subjects?

"What I like the most are subjects that have a lot of movement of drama in them," he said. "I also really like doing subject matter that has to do with the LGBTQ community. I'd like more commissions in that theme."

While we compared art forms, Kruzich shared his thoughts on his career transition. Like dance, he said, mosaic work "still requires all of the discipline, all of the patience, all of the repetition, to get good things. You have to do it over and over."

The subject matter for his personal and commissioned works vary greatly, including one that took him to Hawaii for four months last year.

"It's a very versatile medium," he said. "For instance, I'm doing a couple of small pieces for a Catholic church. I'd like to be doing works with a bunch of dancers or naked guys swimming in the water. But right now, it's clouds and lambs and crosses. It's what is paying the rent right now. But even in subject matter I don't see myself in, I try to put something of my own character in there."

Hunter's Point Shipyard Open Studios, April 29 and 30, 11am-6pm. 451 Galvez St. Also at Islais Creek, 1 Rankin St. Visit Michael Kruzich's studio, usually weekdays, or by appointment.

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