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John Tuska (1931 – 1998) was an American artist and educator. He was best known as a sculptor and potter, but also as a draftsman, painter, designer and photographer.
Tuska was born in Yukon, Pennsylvania, as the eighth of ten children. He was a professor at the University of Kentucky. His classes and workshops (for the general public), had brought art to a wider audience. Tuska's body of work can be found in collections and public spaces, both regionally and internationally.
The tiny town of Yukon, Pennsylvania, about thirty-five miles southeast of Pittsburgh, may seem an unlikely birthplace for a person destined to become a gifted, versatile, and prolific artist. But Yukon, then a coal mining locale, is where John Regis Tuska, with the assistance of a midwife, entered the world on January 12, 1931. His father, John Michael Tuska, was an immigrant from Landers, Czechoslovakia; his mother, Cecilia Marie Kuzma, haled from Irwin, Pennsylvania. Tuska was the only boy among their eight children, and two more daughters would follow in 1933 and 1937. So he grew up with nine sisters. Women thus held no mystery for him, as Tuska would remark in later life.
The Great Depression deprived Tuska's father of his job in the coal mines, and in 1936 he moved the family to New York City. They settled in Brooklyn in an apartment on Vanderbilt Avenue in the Flatbush area. This portentous relocation from rural small town to giant metropolis proved auspicious for Tuska. A teeming cityscape now spread limitlessly before his young eyes, offering manifold attractions and opportunities. In a letter to his younger sister Joanna, Tuska recalled, "We were immediately curious and adventurous about our surroundings. Prospect Park, a zoo, [a] museum [the Brooklyn Museum], the Botanical Gardens were nearby; after being taken there once, these places became our haunts. We made daily discoveries!" He added, "Our thirst to know continued when we moved those few blocks to Washington Avenue."
Tuska could not recall exactly when he and Joanna first began to explore the city via public transportation, but once they had discovered the subway system—he could ride all day for three cents (later five cents), she for nothing because early on of her age and later her short stature that allowed entering under the turnstiles-- they repeatedly traversed the length and breadth of Manhattan. So the streets of the city became Tuska's first important teacher. Soon he also discovered that New York offered the public library and numerous art museums and galleries. These would be his new and most desirable haunts. When he was about eleven, as he noted during an interview, the Brooklyn Museum provide him his first experience of working with professional artists. The museum offered art programs for children, and there Tuska learned the rudiments of drawing and creating cut paper pieces. Through his teenage years he would also frequent the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim, and the Whitney. Admitting that he disliked elementary school, Tuska would in fact often play hooky and spend the day in the public library devouring books on myriad subjects or in a museum or at the movies. His dislike for school stemmed partly from his having learned to read at an early age; and, being a prodigious reader, he felt that in the classroom he was being taught what he already knew—the library seemed a superior place for learning.
Tuska attended Roman Catholic elementary and grammar schools and served as an altar boy at St. John the Baptist Church during the early 1940s. Although, according to his sisters, Tuska was devoted to serving at the altar, these years would end his involvement with any religious practices. Fortunately for his future career, following his participation in a citywide competition, Tuska was selected to attend the renowned High School of Music & Art in Manhattan as one of only forty-five entering art students. He had already by now long been pursuing freehand drawing, an activity that he continued till the end of his life. Tuska graduated from the arts high school in 1950. The following year he entered Alfred University to learn working in clay and creating ceramics. He clearly showed immediate promise as a ceramist, since his works were represented in exhibits in New York, Kentucky, and Tennessee in 1950. But the next year his career path took a major detour.
In 1951, during the peak of the Korean War, Tuska joined the United States Navy in order to fulfill his required military service. He would serve until late 1955, with tours of duty in both Europe and Asia. One propitious tour provided him with a lengthy stint in Tokyo. He took full advantage of this opportunity by visiting the studios of such famous ceramists as Rosanjin, Kawai, and Hamada; their works comprised a lifelong inspiration for Tuska. With his navy service completed, Tuska went home to New York, where he worked for some months at an advertising agency, and then returned to Alfred in the fall of 1956 to pursue his work in ceramics with increased energy and passion. The medium would occupy him for the rest of his life. As he stated in a 1985 interview, "I never stopped being a potter." Learning ceramics was not Tuska's only focus at the time, however. He had fallen in love with Miriam Gitttelman, and they married at the end of the year. Now he had not only his art but also his muse, for that was largely the role Miriam would fill for him during their nearly forty-year marriage—the most straightforward evidence of her role as muse is depicted in this exhibit’s abstract bronze entitled Miriam (1971). Tuska graduated cum laude in 1959 but stayed on at Alfred and earned his MFA in ceramics from the New York State College of Ceramics there in 1960. A teaching career of thirty-four years duration followed.
Tuska's first teaching post began in the late summer of 1960 at Murray State University (MSU, then College) in Murray, Kentucky. His assumption of a teaching position, most especially at the college level, provided both relief and gratification to his parents, who regarded teaching as a respectable and substantial career while disdaining the pursuit of art as dubious or inconsequential and most unlikely to pay the bills. Tuska himself certainly recognized that in those years (although less so in later years) it was totally unrealistic to expect that he could hope to earn a livelihood from creating pots on his own, without being employed by some large firm at the probable sacrifice of his creativity. Teaching could offer both a secure career path and considerable free time to make art.
While at MSU, Tuska became aware that he still lacked true expertise in drawing, and so he taught himself what he needed to achieve in perfecting this art form. Subsequently, he would draw every day of his life. In 1963 the Tuska family moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where Tuska had accepted a teaching post in the Department of Art at the University of Kentucky. Tuska remained in this post until his retirement in 1994, and these thirty-one years proved to be the most creative and prolific of his artistic career, as the pieces in this traveling exhibit clearly attest.
Even during his last years at Alfred the outstanding quality of Tuska's pottery had already been gaining recognition. For example, in 1958 his work appeared in exhibits at a gallery in Washington, D. C., and at the Rochester (New York) Memorial Art Gallery; and in 1959 he won a blue ribbon at the New York State Craft Fair, the First Prize Ceramics: Young America ’59 at Xavier University in New Orleans, and selection for a US Information Agency invitational exhibit in New Delhi, India. Innumerable further exhibits and prizes ensued. In fact, Tuska's work was represented in exhibits virtually every year of his life thereafter in such disparate locales as the Smithsonian Institution (repeatedly); Wichita, Kansas; Atlanta, Georgia; St. Paul, Minnesota; Scripps College in Claremont, California; Palm Beach, Florida; the State University of Iowa; Pennsylvania State University; New York City; Worcester, Massachusetts; the American Embassy in Gabon, Liberville, Africa; Columbus, Ohio; Los Angeles, California; and, of course, at many sites throughout Kentucky and in southern Ohio and Indiana.
A commission for a massive public work entitled Genesis (1969) culminated Tuska’s achievement in ceramics during the 1960s and also pointed the direction his art would pursue. Measuring six feet by eight feet, Genesis comprises a high-relief stoneware wall on the top floor of the eighteen-storey Patterson Office Tower at the University of Kentucky. Through a series of colorful folded clay forms highlighted by a masterful glaze technique Genesis portrays the creation of the heavens and the earth. This large work defines both a climax and a transition in Tuska’s career as a ceramist. For while revealing the hollowness of clay used as a vessel, as Val Cushing has pointed out, the work also marks the emergence of the human figure in Tuska’s ceramics. Noting that potters use a language for their vessels that reveals a clear connection with the human figure, Cushing cites such terms as “feet, bellies, necks, shoulders, lips” in describing pots.12 And Tuska himself would later state, “I’ve always thought that my clay forms as vessels were very figurative in character, so it seemed very natural to approach the figure as an entity in itself.”
A year’s sabbatical leave from the university in 1969-1970 secured this new direction in Tuska’s work. Because of his ongoing admiration for Japanese ceramics and culture Tuska had planned to spend this year in Japan continuing his studies of ceramics, and especially the techniques practiced by that nation’s potters. In anticipation, he and his family members had been trying to learn some Japanese but to no end, since Miriam finally decided that she and the children were not going to spend a year living in a nation whose language they could not speak and where women were traditionally subservient. And so instead the sabbatical year took the Tuskas—John, Miriam, and their young sons Seth and Stephan--to Rome, Italy, where they resided near the Piazza Navona. For the future of Tuska’s art the experience of Rome proved both momentous and fortunate.
That experience brought to fruition Tuska’s developing passion for rendering the human form. Although his original intention had been to continue studying ceramics while in Italy, Tuska, inspired first of all by the city of Rome’s public art, shifted his focus and now taught himself how to draw the human figure. He attended free sessions at the Academie della Belles Artes, where he could draw from a live model. More importantly, through his friendship with Chaim Shapiro, another ceramist who was also then in Rome, Tuska gained access to a local metal foundry, where he worked, studied, and mastered the art of casting in bronze. He attained this goal by immersing himself in the lost art of the wax method of casting, which allowed for expanded and intricate detailing in sculpted wax that could not possibly be executed in the medium of clay. Tuska’s studies in Rome inspired a lifetime preoccupation with rendering the human figure in a variety of art media. That propensity may well have been enhanced during the Tuskas’ year abroad by their travels to Venice, London, Prague, Russia, Vienna, and other sites in Europe that, in notable contrast to American cities, profusely display public art that is largely devoted to depictions of human figures (often national heroes, of course) or their equivalent in representations of anthropomorphic gods.
After returning to Lexington and his teaching career, Tuska continuously broadened his artistic interests. While still producing works in clay, he experimented with other media, again teaching himself. Over the years he would produce hundreds of works not only in clay but also in pencil, ink and wash, cut paper, wire, bronze, aluminum, plexiglass, wood, gutter meshing, stained glass, and paper he made from fabrics and then molded. Most of these works were renderings of the human form. Having chosen that focus while in Rome, Tuska began by using Greek and Roman mythology as the incubator of figures to render. Thus, for example, he produced numerous works in diverse media inspired by the myth of Icarus. The most ambitious of these is a public commission that hangs in the student center at Vanderbilt University. Completed in 1974 and composed of sixteen wall-mounted clay panels, the Flight of Icarus depicts the unfortunate victim of his own aspirations in diverse free-falling poses as he plummets towards earth and death. In the traveling exhibit a partial representation of this large work may be seen in the ceramic piece Flight of Icarus (1974).
Tuska would secure only two more large-scale public art works during his career. The first of these, commissioned in 1985, was production of a bust of John Sherman Cooper, United States senator from Kentucky (1946-49, 1952-54, and 1956-73), delegate to the United Nations General Assembly (1949), ambassador to India and Nepal (1955), member of the Warren Commission (1963-64), and first American ambassador to the German Democratic Republic (1974-76). To accomplish this work Tuska traveled to Washington, D.C., where Cooper posed for him. Tuska first rendered the former senator in a life-size portrait modeled in clay, depicting him as aged sixty, although Cooper was then eighty years old. Subsequently, Tuska transformed this portrait into a twice life-size bust, from which he then created a mold for casting a bronze bust. The finished work remains on display in the Capitol in Frankfort, Kentucky.
The final public work awarded to Tuska was creation of a relief grouping of fifty-six bronze figures entitled Illumine in varied action poses to decorate the façade of the Fine Arts Building at the University of Kentucky. This commission came to him through the sponsorship of the university’s Donovan Scholars program. Partly as a result of health problems, the project required nine years to complete. Tuska conceived the bronzes initially through creating numerous drawings of human figures; then he molded wax models of selected drawings in relief. Under the direction of Tuska and his Art Department colleague Jack Gron, art students cast these wax models into bronze in the university’s foundry. This large undertaking required two tons of bronze, with many hours devoted to sandblasting, polishing, and applying a patina to the cast bronzes in preparation for their mounting on the Fine Arts Building’s façade. The entirety of the work is represented in the exhibit by the bronze piece entitled Final Illumine Study (1992) and also by two preliminary studies, the wood screens entitled Illumine Study: Dance I and Illumine Study: Dance II, both done in 1985. Illumine was finally hung during the summer of 1995 and dedicated on August 25, 1995. At the dedication ceremony Tuska presented brief remarks, explaining Illumine in these words: “The university’s main resource is generations and generations of people. I’m trying to recreate the history of the institution as well as capture the future filled with new possibilities.”
The comment reveals some insight into how Tuska perceived his own role as teacher. During his many years at the University of Kentucky it was that role, after all, that had to take preeminence. However much he relished the making of art, much of his time was necessarily consumed with teaching, the activity that provided his livelihood—creating he must do on his own time. But teaching itself, when properly done, requires creativity, imagination, and commitment. By all accounts Tuska brought every bit as much of these qualities to his teaching as he did to his art. Former students and colleagues attest that Tuska demanded that his students dedicate themselves to perfecting their skills, to stretching their minds, and to searching for their own answers.
As an example, one of his former students, now a career metal sculptor, states that, while at the University of Kentucky and taking classes from Tuska, he devoted minimal time and energy to his studies, much preferring carousing, pub crawling, and chasing women. Disappointed, disgruntled, and concerned, Tuska took him aside and admonished him, insisting that the student had genuine artistic talent and that he absolutely must fulfill that talent by dedicating himself to its promise, making a commitment to hard work, application, and aspiration. And Tuska persisted in pressuring and encouraging this student, as he did many others, nudging him towards the path that his youthful talent predicated. Consequently, says the sculptor with deep admiration, he owes the fulfillment of both his career and his life to Tuska as a devoted teacher.
During the decades between Tuska’s first public work, Genesis, and Illumine he continued to pore his energies into creation of smaller pieces of enormous variety. Constantly challenging himself with the simple but evocative question “What if?”, Tuska explored possibilities for expression through mastering diverse media in addition to clay, drawing, and bronze.20 The sizable costs of casting in bronze, it should be noted, severely limited Tuska’s use of that metal, thereby providing one spur for his experimentation with other media. But it was the artist’s own motivation, searching, and passion that provided the primary stimulus; and these often seemed boundless, ultimately limited only by aging and death. Tuska’s extraordinary productivity seems astounding to any observer, leading to wonderment about whether he ever took time to rest. In fact, Tuska attested that, even after a full day of creative endeavor, he often got out of bed at night to draw or otherwise pursue development of some ideas he had been mulling for a new work. Seemingly tireless, perhaps even obsessed with making art, he generated an amazing output of individual works, scores of which he actually destroyed as inferior to his vision. It is from his still vast extant output that the sixty pieces of the current exhibition were selected.
As previously noted, while he was working on Illumine Tuska endured some problems with his health that portended a declining capacity for creativity. In fact, the first of these problems emerged even while Tuska worked on the bust of John Sherman Cooper. In April 1986 he experienced a brush with death, resulting in triple bypass heart surgery. Seriously debilitated by both the heart disease and the surgery, Tuska needed a lengthy recovery before he could return wholeheartedly to work. But the total experience inspired his revival of molding and casting pots, resulting in the creation of such works as the Vessel:Heart Pods series (1985) represented in this traveling exhibit that render the heart and its attached aorta as one vessel that both contains and generates life’s very essence.
Although he was happily returned to creativity, further health problems emerged in April 1987 while Tuska worked on Illumine, for he then suffered the first of two strokes that left him temporarily nearly blinded in his right eye.. This second brush with death or at least with the threat of serious debility engendered a more somber, even dark, mood in some of his art works, as suggested by Denial, a charcoal, pencil, wash, and collage piece completed in 1990, and most especially by the ink, charcoal, pencil, and pastel piece Medical Journal:Incident of ’87 (1992) included in the exhibit. Interestingly, these works recall an earlier period of evident melancholy depicted here in the three pieces entitled The Anatomy Lesson, all rendered in pencil on paper in 1964. The bypass surgery and the strokes—reminders of his mortality or memento mori—stoked in Tuska a renewed energy for engaging with his art, as if in determination to pursue and fulfill an internal mandate to create with intense fervor. Much of this energy Tuska devoted to completion of Illumine, but it also infused his pursuit of two entirely new media, cut paper and cast paper. The former may have been a logical extension of his preoccupation with drawing. Examples of this cut paper medium include Medical Journal: Incident of ’86 “One Way”(1989), a work of truly astonishing expertise that reveals Tuska’s darkened mood and even his sense of helplessness, frustration, and anger as a besieged patient.
The last years of work on Illumine were also complicated by the health problems that Miriam suffered. In 1994 she developed an ulcerated colon, and the subsequent medical remedies she endured, including long-term doses of steroids, actually exacerbated the malady. Finally in July 1996 she underwent a colonectomy, but her deteriorated overall health—she was by then afflicted with bacterial infections, pneumonia, high blood sugar, and a bladder infection—prevented her recovery. Miriam died in late August 1996. Her loss proved a staggering emotional blow to Tuska from which he probably never fully recovered--most likely adversely affecting his own health.
Tuska did return to his art, but in 1997 he fell and broke his right arm. Until the arm mended Tuska would experience intense frustration, being unable to make art , since his right hand, which he now could not use, was the instrument of his creativity. Unfortunately, the mending process proved faltering; scans and tests to discover why revealed that Tuska had lung cancer. Since the cancer was inoperable, he began having chemotherapy treatments. Now afflicted with both a disabled arm and a deadly malady, Tuska, ever retaining his passion and need for creativity, began teaching himself how to draw Japanese language ideograms with his left hand. On the morning of April 30, 1998 Tuska’s son Seth came to the artist’s home to take him to a chemotherapy session and found his father collapsed at the foot of the stairs, dead of heart failure at age sixty-seven.
Tuska had remarked in an interview, “I have a sign hanging in my studio which says, ‘Non Basta Una Vita,’ meaning one life is not enough. It isn’t enough for all the things I want to do and say.” 25 In retrospect the statement seems self-ironic or as if made in jest, since it is difficult to imagine any artist whose virtuosity and productivity came nearer to equaling those of two lifetimes than Tuska’s did. How many artists come to mind who even attempted to work in ten or more different media, let alone excelling in most of them? For example, among Tuska’s famous contemporary American artists, such as Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg, John Chamberlain, and Robert Morris, each is known for work in only one medium, two at best. And as for ceramists, nearly all, as Val Cushing has remarked of his own output, devoted their entire careers to working with clay. By contrast, Tuska focused his energies on mastering a huge variety of media, for all of which, with the exception of ceramics, he served largely as his own instructor—that fact alone reveals the sublimeness of his achievement. His work over the forty years of his career is staggering in quantity, distinguished in quality, and exceptional in diversity. Among his contemporaries he most likely came closer to meriting the epithet “Renaissance artist” than any. Non Basta Una Vita, indeed.
David F. Burg Tuska Biographer