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Spending Time with the Tuskas

By Randi Sobol (niece to Miriam Tuska)

A three-year-old experiences things impressionistically, so my memories of a visit to Alfred to see my Uncle John and Aunt Mimi (her siblings and their kids never called her Miriam) are of particular moments: Watching tree branches bobbing outside the kitchen window while devouring a bowl of just-picked plump blueberries shimmering in a cloud of sweetened sour cream. Sitting on my uncle’s lap at a spinning pottery wheel in a real barn (city child, I’d never seen one in person!) as a magnificent creation took shape in my own clay-soaked hands. Crying when my mother said it was time to leave this wonderland, and two people I never wanted to leave.

They’d made a few trips to New York since then, but the next time I saw them in their natural habitat was years later in Lexington. By then I was old enough that everything made an impact – starting with the weathered sign swinging above the front porch identifying their landlocked Victorian beauty as The Breakers. My mother saw in it her sister’s longing for the Jersey shore vacations of their childhood; I just thought it was hysterical, a mark of my aunt’s fabulous wit. (It was both, of course.)

Inside, the house was a clearer reflection of the people who lived there than any house I’ve ever seen. The entryway led straight to the living room, where John’s art, his painting and sculpture, and Miriam’s antiques, her textiles and toys, combined with their casually perfect furnishings and the woodwork of the house itself to create a room of such personality and warmth that it almost literally talked to you. It could have been a museum, except that no museum invited you on sight to touch anything and curl up anywhere the way this place did. The feeling extended throughout the house, from the massive country kitchen to the cozy guest rooms that virtually begged you to snuggle up in bed and dream yourself into another era. The house was endlessly fascinating territory for exploration; and it was a home.

While Uncle John was on campus and their boys were in school, Mom and I (along with my brother, poor little guy) spent the days playing with Aunt Mimi: shopping at flea markets, gabbing over lunch (the sisters always fought each other for the check), and soaking up every detail she would share about the marvelous things in her various collections. Mom was into crafts and I was into history, so we both fell in love with her quilts – from homey to spectacular, each was uniquely beautiful, and each had a story. We oohed and ahhed over her Kashmir shawls. We coveted the assortment of copper pots and pans and contraptions large and small that charmingly cluttered her kitchen, but those were no mere decorative baubles: my aunt, the most expert and creative cook I’ve ever met, used them all.

Aunt Mimi knew I loved dolls and antique clothing, so one evening while everyone else was downstairs relaxing after dinner, she led me into her sanctum: a storage room containing shelves, trunks and boxes bursting with magic. Among her dolls were some I’d seen in books: from Bru and Jumeau to early Madame Alexander, porcelain, cloth, composition, and wood, in period fashion or dressed as characters fictional and historical, they took my breath away. Then she opened the trunks of clothing, and out billowed gorgeous dresses, blouses, petticoats, weskits, masses of linen and lace, ribbon and silk, homespun and wool. For each wonderful piece, Aunt Mimi told me about the fabric, the era, the design, and the function of any mysterious details. I wanted to live in that room.

The timing of our visit meant Uncle John wasn’t usually home during the day, though in a real way he was never absent. I’d always loved living with his art in our little apartment (we had a painting, two small works of sculpture, and several vases, bowls, and assorted pieces of pottery), so finally getting to see larger-scale pieces of his, and the studio in which he created it all, was thrilling. The impossible mingling of power and tenderness in those works, the vibrancy of life that radiated from them and from his workplace itself, were literally overwhelming to me.

And in the evenings, the man himself was most emphatically present. He and my aunt were hands-down the most naturally entertaining humans on the planet: whether talking family, politics, topics shallow or serious, conversation was always thoroughly absorbing and frequently hilarious. Dinner at the Tuskas, featuring my aunt's sublime food and the pair's singular company, was truly a feast.

After dinner, Uncle John occupied center stage; So many of my formative cultural touchstones came from him, amazing to realize given how little time I was able to spend with him. He introduced me to a lifelong love when he placed Tom Lehrer's "That Was the Year That Was" on the turntable, handing me the lyrics in the liner notes so I could follow as he sang along, enthusiastically gesticulating with each brilliantly sardonic verse. Yet even as he imprinted Lehrer's brittle, ironic distance on my psychic DNA, he and his bounteous record collection also gave me the seemingly incompatible opposite, when he put on the soundtrack from Zorba the Greek.

As the music started, he remained standing, smiling expectantly. Then slowly he raised his arms, and began to snap his fingers to the rhythm. His arms stretched out wide, and he moved with the music, still smiling, arms still outstretched, fingers still snapping. He beckoned us to join him, and as the music gradually built in pace and volume, he led us in the <em>sirtaki</em>, that famous, simple dance of transcendent bliss. I can still feel that sensation, the ecstasy of pure movement and feeling. And I still marvel that the person who taught me the intellectual pleasure of perfectly crafted political satire was the same person who taught me the visceral joy of life in a sublime moment.

That trip to Lexington was my only one. And their trips up North were far too few. No doubt the rarity of our time together has kept my memory of that visit that much more vivid all these years later. But the one image that first comes to mind when I think back is of John, arms outstretched, smiling almost beatifically, moving to the rhythm of that peculiar strain of music that somehow captures both an observer’s equanimity and a total immersion in all the joy and pain of humanity. That captures, in other words, what John, and Miriam too, lived every day of their lives – the life of an artist.

video accompaniment to the post:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4t64FQUlD0A

Tuska's thoughts...

“I have a sign hanging in my studio which says, Non Basta Una Vita, which means, One Life is Not Enough.  And it isn’t enough for all the things I want to say and do, work generates work.  I will continue working and finding out. The things of the visual world are not made by material or technique alone.  The human element must be present.  One hand, one brain, the human expression and the ability to reason, combine with the material and process to form the born object.  However, when an artist shows some of the results of his discoveries, he is asking for a reaction not based on a viewer’s past experience.  Each object exists for its own reason without reference to a historical connection.  We bear the entire world of man’s history on our shoulders, and this helps make it difficult to view objects in terms of our own time and century. Each individual, working, studies and learns to become automatic with his techniques. What is done with these skills is important.  The materials the artist chooses are his tool.  His process techniques are his method.  Both of these combine to make his vision and imagination.  Trying to go beyond what is realistic, abstract or perhaps expected, and create a new dimension that confronts the producer and viewer into a sense reaction. I have had many media changes in my life, since I do not feel one media answers all of the visual questions that concern me.  I have always generated the premise “what  if?”.  There are always questions, and the possible answers are what I produce.  No one media satisfies the diversity of my thinking.  And so, I extend my experience and skills into unknowns, thereby satisfying the curious question, “what if?”.  You reach for stars, moons, and planets, which you may never see or never reach, but OK!  What an experience to ride one’s life through!  The doors that open, the visions that evolve, are not final, but layers that open into future possibilities.  Life’s variety has no conclusion, it keeps unraveling.  We reach the center: the sight of what is and what might be!”

“I have a sign hanging in my studio which says, Non Basta Una Vita, which means, One Life is Not Enough.  And it isn’t enough for all the things I want to say and do, work generates work.  I will continue working and finding out.

The things of the visual world are not made by material or technique alone.  The human element must be present.  One hand, one brain, the human expression and the ability to reason, combine with the material and process to form the born object. 

However, when an artist shows some of the results of his discoveries, he is asking for a reaction not based on a viewer’s past experience.  Each object exists for its own reason without reference to a historical connection.  We bear the entire world of man’s history on our shoulders, and this helps make it difficult to view objects in terms of our own time and century.

Each individual, working, studies and learns to become automatic with his techniques. What is done with these skills is important.  The materials the artist chooses are his tool.  His process techniques are his method.  Both of these combine to make his vision and imagination.  Trying to go beyond what is realistic, abstract or perhaps expected, and create a new dimension that confronts the producer and viewer into a sense reaction.

I have had many media changes in my life, since I do not feel one media answers all of the visual questions that concern me.  I have always generated the premise “what  if?”.  There are always questions, and the possible answers are what I produce.  No one media satisfies the diversity of my thinking.  And so, I extend my experience and skills into unknowns, thereby satisfying the curious question, “what if?”. 

You reach for stars, moons, and planets, which you may never see or never reach, but OK!  What an experience to ride one’s life through!  The doors that open, the visions that evolve, are not final, but layers that open into future possibilities.  Life’s variety has no conclusion, it keeps unraveling.  We reach the center: the sight of what is and what might be!”

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Val Cushing, Professor Emeritus, New York State College of Ceramics at Alfred University

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 "Now that I've had the opportunity to see the full range of Tuska's work, I have no doubt at all, that Tuska is one of the important figures in art, at this time. The range of his work is truly awesome. I see drawing as the absolute heart of visual art, whether it becomes sculpture or painting or ceramics, drawing somehow pulls everything together. But Tuska has approached drawing in the sense of a renaissance master. That he is able to draw in ways that are eloquent and descriptive beyond the way that many of us use drawing, which is a way to think into a structure. Tuska has also made drawing a sort of an end in point. And then he's done the same thing with many media. Tuska did not attempt the kind of self promotion that allows people in a nation, world wide sense, to be aware of who you are as an artist. I think that will come to Tuska through the efforts of his son and others to present Tuska's work to a wider audience because it absolutely, in quality, is among the finest work I know. I see . . . the only difference is that the art world is not as aware of this artist as I think they will become."

One Life is Not Enough

One Life is Not Enough

Carol Heft

 

When one looks at the body of work left by John Tuska, there are diverse influences from the modern epoch, but the overriding features that define his vision are vitality, gesture, and exploration. 

A practicing sculptor and graduate of Alfred University, Tuska studied and grew up during the time of the Abstract Expressionist movement in the United States, which produced such modern masters as Mark Rothko, Elaine and Willem DeKooning , Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner,  Joan Mitchell, Franz Kline, and many others. New York became the center of the art world as post war refugees, including Max Ernst, Piet Mondrian, Josef Albers, and Marcel Duchamp came to escape Nazi occupation. While influenced by these major figures, Tuska maintained his own vision, which, in its richness, made him the kind of teacher who was able to help his students understand the nature of their own experience as reflected in their work.  This he did by both modeling that process in and out of the classroom, and with innate pedagogical expertise.

In reading his memoirs, listening to his lectures on tape and film, and looking at his work, one is struck by the humility with which he traveled across his artistic path.  A path that changed as needed, facilitated by a flexible and open mind.  One thing that is abundantly clear when you look at Tuska’s work is that he loved doing it.  The persistent desire to create objects that both reflect and generate spiritual engagement is satisfied.

Tuska reaches back and forth in time to master the means by which to express his vision. His work synthesizes a multitude of aesthetic impulses, creating a vibrant world that celebrates the human condition in concrete form.  In The Human Condition, 23, one is reminded of the Hildesheim bronze doors, or even Donatello’s low bronze reliefs, and at the same time, Rodin and Ernst Barlach

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His gesture drawings are expressive, symbolic, and descriptive all at once.  They exude energy in their swirling, Baroque movement, and earthy respect for the human body, both unidealized, and venerated .  His mastery of technique always is in the service of his expression, never for its own sake.  At the same time, he fearlessly used a wide range of materials, always keeping himself at the center, his gift to translate what he saw into something that could be communicated; shared.

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His gesture drawings are expressive, symbolic, and descriptive all at once.  They exude energy in their swirling, Baroque movement, and earthy respect for the human body, both unidealized, and venerated .  His mastery of technique always is in the service of his expression, never for its own sake.  At the same time, he fearlessly used a wide range of materials, always keeping himself at the center, his gift to translate what he saw into something that could be communicated; shared.

Tuska was an artist for whom the work itself was its own reward.  The rich aesthetic experiences reflected in his drawings, sculptures in the round, reliefs and paintings are living examples of how he approached his life as an artist and teacher, and as such, never die and always inspire.

John Regis Tuska - A man for all Times

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JOHN REGIS TUSKA:

A Man for All Times

  

            A close examination of the lifetime achievements of John Regis Tuska and those comments he made regarding his work might lead one to believe that, beyond his extraordinary art that was at all times changing and expanding, he was a man ever reaching, ever questioning, never satisfied.  It seemed to be, as with many great artists, the fire that fueled the genius.  Consider his words:  “We bear the entire world of man’s history on our shoulders and this helps make it difficult to view objects in terms of our own time and century.”  

That he drew brilliantly from past masters…most prominently from those artists of the Renaissance period and, interestingly, the Cubist period…is obvious yet he seems to have used those tenets of art only to expand his own.  But the culling of the past to elucidate his techniques of the present seems not to have been enough for Tuska the teacher.  Reading his comments on those pieces he created, one gets a sense that his reaching was not only an exercise to further create but was set down as inspiration for his students.  And inspire he did.  The rich images he conveyed when dealing with the yet unformed conveys the mystic in the artist.  For he seemed to take on other worlds as he grasped for meaning and expression in his own material world and his own sentient summaries of the here and now.  Although prolific in several media and one who held high standards to each, from his writings one might conclude he had only scratched the surface.  Non basta una vita, meaning “one life is not enough”, was his mantra as he neared the end of his life.

Beyond the legacy of the astounding creations left by John Regis Tuska are his profound philosophies and reaching that he bequeaths to posterity.  To whichever art category John Regis Tuska is relegated by current or future critics, his works are that of a master and should be considered one of the greats of the last Millennium.

Ellen Everman Deaton

Arts Across Kentucky