John Regis Tuska spent three decades teaching fine art at the University of Kentucky and creating thousands of pieces of art in a variety of media, including drawing, painting, sculpture, collage, ceramics and papier-mache.
Since Tuska’s death in 1998 at age 67, son Seth Tuska has been trying to figure out the best business model to share his father’s legacy with the world. After several false starts and dead ends — plus his own serious health problems — Seth Tuska thinks he has found the right niche.
Much of his father’s work focused on depictions of the human body and how it moves, so Tuska figured health care was a good place to start.
The spa industry seemed like a promising avenue, and it didn’t hurt that the International Spa Association was based in Lexington and supportive of his efforts. But Tuska was trained as a structural engineer, not a businessman.
Then, last summer, he heard about the Spa Design Giveaway contest that Raad Ghantous, a California-based interior designer of spas and luxury resorts, was sponsoring to find new ideas. The winner would receive a complete design package to help market a concept to investors. Tuska entered the contest and won.
Tuska has worked with Ghantous and artistic director Julianne Palma to create a brand to market to spa owners.
“It’s about changing the culture of the spa industry,” Tuska said. “It’s about making the arts as important (to the spa experience) as nutrition and exercise.”
The first step is an interactive installation, which also could be a traveling exhibit with corporate sponsorship, called The Looking Glass. It uses 30 pieces of John Tuska’s art with quotes and music to encourage self-reflection. Seth Tuska has tested the concept with several temporary installations, such as a recent one at Bluegrass United Church of Christ.
The Looking Glass could be a good vehicle for helping acquaint the public with his father’s work, Tuska said. As the work and brand become better known, it could increase sales of originals and reproduction pieces, which include art prints and wooden screens of Tuska figures he has made through a company called Tuska Studio.
Dave Wilson, a Lexington marketing consultant working with Tuska, likened it to the recent popularity of art reproductions of designs by the late great architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
“I’ve always felt like with the right opportunities the prints and screens could be a foundation to continuing to tell the story of the man,” Wilson said. “We think Tuska could be a part of many spas’ programs.”
At some point, Tuska said, the project could lead to finding a permanent home for his 4,000-piece collection of his father’s work.
Hundreds more pieces are in museum and private collections. Two passionate collectors of Tuska originals are Lexington businessman Denny Williamson and Mike Scanlon, a restaurant executive and former Lexington vice mayor. Both have been giving Seth Tuska business advice for the venture.
Scanlon noted that John Tuska was a teacher as well as a professional artist — and he could live on a university paycheck rather than having to hustle for sales and commissions — so he had enormous creative freedom, which is reflected in the quality and diversity of his work.
“He didn’t have to be trendy,” Scanlon said. “He just did what he wanted to do.”
While that kept Tuska from becoming more famous in his lifetime, Scanlon said, it allowed him to create an enormous body of work that now has the potential to find an appreciative global audience.
“Finding the spa industry as an audience was one of the best branding moves he could have made,” Scanlon said of Seth Tuska. “There is a story in the art; it’s all about healing. Everybody is going to see their own story, but there is a theme.”
Tuska agreed, adding that this approach also plays into his father’s philosophy as an educator.
“He would tell students, “Don’t recreate my work. I want your work and I’m here to help you with your work,’” Tuska said. “The core is how to inspire you to be you.”