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Remembering Mike Ruiz, Multi-talented artist with ties to Acción Latina

Remembering Mike Ruiz, Multi-talented artist with ties to Acción Latina

Mike Ruiz at Accíon Latina. Photo: Mabel Jiménez

Mike Ruiz, the renowned painter, sculptor, illustrator, and designer who was instrumental in the creation of Acción Latina’s Juan R. Fuentes Gallery, died on Nov. 24, 2021 from complications from pneumonia. He was 89. 

Born Michael Leopold Ruiz on March 14, 1932 in Redwood City, Ruiz grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, and taught art and art history at City College of San Francisco for more than 25 years. In addition to teaching at CCSF, Ruiz also taught at Diablo Valley College, Civic Arts of Walnut Creek, and the deYoung Museum. He developed and taught courses on a variety of subjects including contemporary Latin American art and the ancient art and architecture of Latin America.

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A true multidimensional artist, Ruiz fused his love for design and illustration with his Mexican heritage and years of study of the ancient cultures of Latin America, creating works of art ranging from watercolor on paper to terracotta sculptures. 

A former board member of Acción Latina—the nonprofit that publishes El Tecolote—Ruiz played a vital role in the design of Acción Latina’s current exterior façade, which broke ground in 2015. Ruiz had a vision of including Mayan reliefs on the lower panel of the exterior of the building, which are exact replicas of the Mayan relief masterpieces from mesoamerica. 

Mike Ruiz during the “4th Annual Latino Life” photojournalism exhibit reception at Acción Latina on Saturday, Jan. 14, 2017. Photo: Beth LaBerge

Ruiz’s art was featured prominently in the Juan R. Fuentes Gallery grand opening exhibition, “Bridging Time and Place: A Statement in Clay and Color,” which launched on Dec. 12, 2015. ​Ruiz’s mixed media installation explored various themes of cultural resistance, rebirth and transcendence, bringing together a collection of his work across several mediums including watercolor, etchings and sculpture.

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“I’m honored to have a one-man show in Accion Latina’s new gallery,” said Ruiz at the time. “Given the demographic changes within San Francisco’s Mission District over the past decade, it’s important that community institutions like Acción Latina find ways to preserve and showcase Latino art and cultural traditions. The new art gallery definitely contributes to this goal.”

Prior to Acción Latina’s new exterior façade, Ruiz also created a special Día de los Muertos installation in 2013, utilizing Acción Latina’s then upper windows to create a cemetery depicting all the businesses that have ceased to exist as a result of gentrification. That exhibition became so popular, with tourists snapping pictures almost every day. 

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Mike Ruiz (right) and Rick Rodrigues pose for a portrait in front of El Templo del Tecolote. Photo: Alexis Terrazas

In 2017, alongside his good friend and colleague Rick Rodrigues, Ruiz completed the construction of the monument, El Templo del Tecolote, which is a tribute to the genius of indigenous art. Located in the back patio of Accíon Latina, the templo showcases Ruiz’s near exact replicas of the Maya Bas-reliefs from Yaxchilan, Chiapas, Mexico, and the famous full-figured glyphs from Copan, Honduras.

“I have never considered myself a very spiritual person. I don’t believe in an afterlife, ghosts, magic or miracles. Yet at times, things happen in such a way that makes it seem as though another force is guiding one to places that were not part of the original plan,” Ruiz said at the time. “That is the wonderful experience I had with the construction of this tribute to the art of the Americas and its genius. This project seemed to take on a life of its own, becoming much more than I could have wished for. It was magical.” 

Mike Ruiz and his granddaughter, Gabriella. Courtesy of Gabriella Ruiz

Mike Ruiz is survived by his three children, Robert, Amalia, Michael. And six grandchildren, Gabriella, Akili, Nolani, Skylar, Danelle, and Sofia.

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