Visual Arts

Help needed to preserve Tuska's legacy

Non basta una vita — Italian for "one life is not enough" — was the late John Regis Tuska's motto to describe his artistic ambitions.

Now, his son is discovering that two lives may not be enough, either.

For the past dozen years, Seth Tuska has worked to preserve and publicize the legacy of his father, a prolific artist and University of Kentucky art professor who died in 1998 at age 67.

Seth Tuska, 51, turned the family home at the corner of Old Park and Central avenues into a museum of his father's art. He engaged a filmmaker and curator to put together a documentary film about his father and a catalog and traveling show of his work.

He sought commercial outlets for reproductions of Tuska pictures and sculptures, which depict the human form in motion. And he started a bronze foundry on Walton Avenue to support regional sculptors.

But last November, after a bronze-pouring at the foundry, Tuska said he went home with a ringing in his ears. Then, on Christmas morning, he awoke at 4 a.m. with an intense pain in his chest. Foolishly, he didn't see a doctor for three weeks. When he did, he was taken straight in for quadruple bypass heart surgery.

But the worst was still to come.

Tuska said when he resumed normal physical activity in March, the ringing in his ears, which had never really gone away, got much worse. He suffers from a severe case of tinnitus — a constant sound like cicadas in his head that makes it hard to sleep, read or concentrate.

Tuska said he needs to deal with his medical crisis and entrust his father's legacy to others.

"I have to move on and figure out what's ahead for the rest of my life," he said.

The first public steps in that direction will come Friday. Mayor Jim Newberry is to issue a proclamation honoring John Tuska and his work, and he will accept the loan of a bronze figure, Energy Source, for display at city hall.

That evening, during Gallery Hop, the Kentucky Theatre Gallery will display 18 Tuska pieces. The theater will have two showings, at 5:30 p.m. and 6:30 p.m., of Non Basta Una Vita, a 2008 documentary about John Tuska by Arthur Rouse and Kiley Lane.

Thanks to the event's sponsors, attendees also will be given a film poster, popcorn and a drink. Tuska said he has worked with local arts educators to distribute many of the 600 tickets to students.

Where things go from there, Tuska said, depends on community interest — both artistic and financial.

Tuska sold the foundry to artist Amanda Matthews Fields and enlisted a group of community leaders to advise him on how to proceed with setting up a non-profit Tuska Museum and Learning Center foundation to take over the family home and his collection of his father's art.

Tuska lives upstairs in the home but is in the process of moving out. He wants to keep the collection of his father's work in Lexington.

His vision is to continue the home's first floor museum. But, more importantly, he wants to use the upstairs apartment to house visiting artists and the 2,500-square-foot lower level for educational space.

Downtown developer Phil Holoubek, a member of the advisory group, said several strategies have been discussed. "Seth will have to decide what he feels most comfortable doing," he said.

Holoubek said the Tuska collection includes outstanding art that could not only enrich the community culturally but also promote economic development.

LexArts President Jim Clark, who for six years directed the New York Public Art Fund, agreed. "If John Tuska had done this work in New York City he would have been a very prominent sculptor," he said.

Clark sees a lot of potential for the Tuska Museum and Learning Center, if it gets the right leadership that can attract the necessary money.

"Having a house museum is perfect for Lexington," Clark said. "It is intimate in scale. It's in a beautiful neighborhood. Anybody flying into Lexington for the (horse) sales, that would be a perfectly lovely discovery. Part of that is just working with what they've got and marketing it."

With more regular museum hours, more advertising and an experienced curator, Clark thinks the Tuska museum could become an important cultural destination. And he thinks Seth Tuska has the right idea about using his father's legacy to encourage arts education.

In addition to the high quality of John Tuska's work, Clark said, what made him special was his dedication to teaching. Great artists who also are great arts educators, like Tuska and Centre College's Stephen Rolfe Powell, are rare.

A learning center that promoted arts education — and honored arts educators with a "Tuska prize" and residency — could put Lexington on the arts map. "That would be a very big deal in this country," Clark said.

What Seth Tuska needs now is some other people to help him make it happen.