Visual Arts

Sculptor John Tuska's son ensures that his father's work lives on

Lexington sculptor John Tuska had a sign on his studio wall: Non basta una vita. In Italian it means, One life is not enough.

"It isn't enough for all the things I want to do," he once told an interviewer. "Work generates work."

Fortunately for Tuska, who died in 1998 at age 67, there was someone to give his artistic vision another life.e_SClBIn the past dozen years, Seth Tuska, 50, has been collecting, organizing and cataloging his father's prolific work: more than 25,000 documents now housed at the University of Kentucky and more than 4,000 pieces of sculpture, drawing, ceramics and mixed media.

He has worked with a curator to create a 60-piece traveling exhibition that is being marketed to museums around the world. He has turned his childhood home into a museum of his father's work, which had its "grand reopening" on Friday. And he has started a studio, gallery and reproductions business that he hopes will give the museum financial security.

He has worked with filmmakers Arthur Rouse and Kiley Lane on a documentary about his father that premiered in July on Kentucky Educational Television. And he is working with Lexington historian and author David F. Burg on a biography.

On one level, Seth Tuska has spent the past dozen years coming to terms with the most complex relationship of his life. On another, he has laid the groundwork for securing his father's legacy — and for helping other Kentucky artists create theirs.

John Regis Tuska was born in Yukon, Pa., in 1931, the eighth of 10 children and the only son of a coal miner. The Great Depression was on, and when the mines shut down the family moved to New York City when Tuska was 6.

Tuska's father, a Slovakian immigrant, never understood his artistic son, who would skip school and roam the stacks of the Brooklyn Public Library. Tuska graduated from an alternative high school for the arts and worked proofreading Collier's Encyclopedia for 25 cents a day. It was the perfect job for a teenager with an insatiable appetite for knowledge.

After a hitch in the Navy, where he went to Japan and became fascinated with pottery, Tuska graduated from the prestigious New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University. He came to Kentucky for a teaching job at Murray State University. Within three years, he moved to UK, where he was teacher and mentor to hundreds of students over three decades. The university is now home to the Tuska Center for Contemporary Art, a gallery in the Fine Arts Building.

Tuska's wife and muse, Miriam, was a Jewish girl from New Jersey whose family disowned her for marrying Tuska, a Roman Catholic. She also was an art student when they met at Alfred, and she worked with textiles all her life. They had two sons, Seth and Stephen.

For years, Miriam Tuska tried to persuade her husband to go back to New York, where she thought his artistry would be more appreciated. Besides, she missed the ocean. But Tuska liked Kentucky, and the closest she ever came to living near the ocean was in 1975, when the family bought a Victorian house at 147 Old Park Avenue in Lexington, which she named "The Breakers."

The home is now the Tuska Museum and Gallery.

Tuska's first major commission was Genesis, a ceramic interpretation of creation, which hangs on the 18th floor of UK's Patterson Tower. He focused on ceramics until 1969, when he took a yearlong sabbatical to Rome and became fascinated with bronze sculpture and the human form. It dominated the rest of his life's work.

"He was never trying to create a photograph," Seth Tuska said of his father's sculpture. "He was trying to create an idea that you're looking at what's going to happen next. Where is that motion going?"

Tuska's next major commission, in 1974 for Vanderbilt University in Nashville, was a series of bronze panels depicting the mythological flight of Icarus. In 1985, he did a bust of U.S. Sen. John Sherman Cooper for the state Capitol in Frankfort.

Tuska loved experimenting with materials and technique. He sculpted in bronze, plastic and wire and made his own paper to mold reliefs that looked like bronze.

"The man never stopped; he was always trying something new," Seth Tuska said. "He didn't like being in the public eye. He liked the classroom and his studio. That was his environment. But if you came to him, he would talk your ear off."

Tuska's constant work left little time for physical fitness — or family, aside from the annual "Christmas tree/ Hanukkah bush," an elaborate two-week family art project. Triple-bypass heart surgery only seemed to intensify Tuska's desire to create as much as he could in life.

His last major piece — and the one most visible in Lexington — was Illumine, a series of 56 bronze figures celebrating individual human expression that are mounted on the façade of UK's Fine Arts Building. He worked on it from 1985 to 1995. By the end, Tuska was too frail to cast the bronze, so his graduate students did. His son hung it.

Seth Tuska had spent 20 years as a structural engineer, designing bridges and homes. But when his mother fell ill, he became his parents' caregiver. After she died in August 1996 at age 65, the next 18 months were a time of discovery, when Seth Tuska finally began to understand the forces that had driven his father — and kept them apart.

"Mom raised us," he said. "My father worked all the time. He was a loving, giving person ... but if you wanted to be in Dad's world, you had to be in Dad's world. That's why I'm an artist. I spent a lot of time with him in his studio. He rarely included himself in our lives. I understand that now, but as a child it was a bit difficult."

John Tuska got a second wind in the summer of 1997, when he returned to Japan to represent the arts in Kentucky. When he returned, father and son began converting the family home into a gallery and studio. Then, just before Christmas, John Tuska fell and shattered his right arm and drawing hand. It never healed properly.

"In those last few weeks, our conversations were very reflective," Seth Tuska said. "For the first time in his life, his body would not let him do anything that he needed to do. One life was not enough for all the things he wanted to do."

John Tuska died April 30, 1998. He apparently saw it coming: In 1964, he made three drawings depicting the stages of his artistic life. The final one showed him much as he would be 34 years later — broken right arm and all.

Tuska's second life

Working with Rachel Sadinsky, a Lexington-based independent art appraiser and curator, Seth Tuska organized his father's papers and sorted through his studios at home and at UK's Reynolds Building.

"The man never threw anything away," he said. "My journey has been, how do I share this?"

There are the museum and gallery, the papers at UK, the documentary film, the biography, the exhibition and catalog. And then there is the business, selling Tuska reproductions to support the museum and related education efforts.

Because much of Tuska's work depicted human figures in motion, his son is marketing limited-edition pieces to health and wellness companies. It doesn't hurt that the International Spa Association is based in Lexington.

"I might get accused of re-creating my father's work," he said. "But these are all things we talked about doing and were directed by him."

Seth Tuska said he wants his father to be remembered as a great artist.

"I'm the son promoting my father, so that's a tough sell to begin with," he said. But Alfred University is providing help and encouragement, and initial response from museums to the exhibit has been good.

Perhaps the most significant legacy project has been the creation of Tuska Studio and Foundry in the former 9,000-square-foot Perry Lumber Co. building on Walton Avenue.

Bronze artists usually sculpt in clay, but it is a time-consuming and expensive process to turn those sculptures into bronze pieces.

Three years in the making, the studio includes a wood shop, metal shop, ceramics studio, silversmith's studio and a bronze foundry run by artist and teacher Brad Connell.

Tuska and Connell are expanding the foundry to give it the capability to do life-size sculptures. They hope it will fill a need for Kentucky artists and become a place where the public can learn about bronze sculpture.

In other sculpture news ...

Lexington not only has a lot of horses; it has a lot of equine artists, including top horse sculptors Gwen Reardon of Thoroughbred Park fame, Shelley Hunter, Karen Kasper and Alexa King.

Earlier this month, there was a "pour party" at the studio for the casting of the final pieces of Hunter's half-life-size statue of John Henry, which will mark the beloved race horse's grave at the Kentucky Horse Park.

"I was going to go to a foundry in Michigan, but that would have been a lot of trouble and expense," said Hunter, executive director of the Lexington-based American Academy of Equine Art. "This is a wonderful resource for Lexington. We're the horse capital of the world and do all these sculptures, and now we can make them here. The money doesn't leave town."

This was her first experience working with the Tuska Studio, Hunter said, "but it won't be the last time. These guys have been wonderful."

As she spoke, Hunter stood beside a wall that displayed artifacts from John Tuska's career. his leather casting apron, images of his work, a copy of his studio sign, Non basta una vita.

Bronze was John Tuska's favorite medium, and the son says his father had dreamed of having his own foundry.

In this life, he has one.