By Susan Shinn
CHARLOTTE ó In 1961, Sonia and Isaac Luski fled Cuba with two paintings, three children and four suitcases.
Today, they watch as visitors enter their Charlotte home, amazed at the dazzling collection of contemporary art before them.
The Luskis’ collection, comprised primarily of studio glass, takes up just about every available flat surface in their home.
Sonia points to a portrait they had done for their grandson’s bar mitzvah. That was two years ago, but the painting has just arrived.
Several years ago, the same artist, Cuban-born Conrado Basulto painted portraits of Isaac and Sonia that hang in the living room. In each painting, the two are surrounded by glass pieces.Basulto, now based in Miami, is a well-known portraitist.
Cubes of glass made by Jon Kuhn, sparkling like prisms, can be seen in several rooms.
Although Sonia admits she also likes paintings, she says of glass: “It’s very seductive.”
Art, Sonia believes, is healing, and creates harmony within a home.
“It’s a struggle to make good art,” she says. Most artists, she explains, struggle to make a living. “So that’s why it’s so important to help them.”
“There’s a lot of North Carolina talent,” Isaac says.
Pots from the Seagrove potter David Stumphle are clustered beneath a fern.
“He is a master,” Sonia says.
It seems these pieces of art are more like children to their owners. The Luskis not only know every piece, but its maker.
The Luskis have purchased many pieces from artists who came out of the Penland School of Crafts
“Penland has been very influential in our collection,” Sonia says.
“We know their children and their families,” Isaac adds of the artists.
All told, the Luski collection encompasses more than 700 pieces.
Isaac knows it’s too much, he says, but they take such pleasure in collecting.
No wonder the Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State University entitled its 2001 exhibition on the couple’s art “Passionate Collectors.”
Art from the Luski collection can be found in museums throughout the South, including the Mint Museum in Charlotte. Several large pieces by Stephen Dee Edwards are now on display at the new Orchid Conservatory at Daniel Stowe Botanical Gardens in Belmont.
Many more of the Luskis’ pieces can be found at The Foundation for the Carolinas offices in Charlotte, although the public doesn’t get much of a chance to see them.
That’s about to change.
In 2010, the foundation will move to the current location of the Mint Museum of Craft and Design on Tryon Street.
The Luskis are giving a significant portion of their collection to the foundation, which will be on display on the first floor, free of charge, during business hours.
Michael Marsicano, the foundation’s president and CEO, put the deal together to bring the collection to the public, in accordance with the couple’s wishes.
Foundation for the Carolinas will add at least 100 more pieces to its collection of 35.
“It’s an extraordinary opportunity for the citizens of this region to have access to this collection,” Marsicano says. “This will also enable us to have some larger works that we can’t accommodate right now.”
After the move, pieces will continue to be shown in all of the foundation’s public meeting spaces.
The gallery, however, will have an informal ambience, where someone can sit and admire the art, and perhaps have a cup of coffee.
The only thing the couple loves more than collecting, Marsicano says, is sharing their art. The move will enable them to continue to do so.
“Having the artwork is really quite inspiring,” Marsicano says. It creates a pleasurable environment in which to do business ó and it’s an incredible conversation starter, he notes.
Like the rest of us, Marsicano rushes around throughout the day, but sometimes does have a chance to pause and enjoy the artwork around him.
“It keeps you going,” he says.
After settling in Charlotte following a short time in Miami, the Luskis bought a house from Dr. John Ott, a professor of Sonia’s at Queen’s College.
They’ve lived in that same brick house ó modest by the standards of many Charlotteans ó since 1962.
They’ve put on two additions. Mostly, the additions let in the light, to showcase the glass to the best possible extent.
“Light is very important in this medium,” Isaac says.
There’s so much art it’s hard to settle on one thing.
Sonia turns on the lights in a curio cabinet, filled with Paul Stankard’s glass pieces encapsulated in glass, much like a paperweight.
“Let me show you something,” Isaac says more than once.
It’s Rick Beck’s tall obelisk-like piece that stands beside an entry door.
Or it’s multiple orchid designs made by Stephen Dee Edwards.
Or it’s a grouping of vases topped with birds by Shane Fero.
After all, why get one when you can commission an entire set?
“I thought it would make a nice statement,” says Isaac, gesturing to a set of different-sized glass vases by Michael Shumke.
Then he grins, a bit sheepishly, and waves his hand dismissively.
Serving as a backdrop for all these pieces are landscapes by Louis Jones of Asheboro.
Sonia points to one painting by Jones that’s in the style of Jasper Jones. She’s fooled more than one visitor with it, she says.
The couple strolls into what they call their art kitchen, an extra space they use when they entertain.
Four pieces from Edwards line the wall in front of large windows.
Isaac arranges three vases from Brent Kee Young that just arrived. He sets them on the table, where their reflection glows on the shiny surface.
He passes a Kuhn piece and gives it a nudge so it starts to spin, catching the light.
Some of the pieces here travel, Isaac says, some don’t.
They’ve been to museums in Hickory, Asheville, Columbia, S.C., and York, S.C.
“We’ve donated a lot of pieces to those museums and people enjoy them,” Isaac says.
They’re also in the collections at UNCC, Levine Children’s Hospital, Presbyterian Hospital, Shalom Park and many local libraries.
Quite an expansion from those two Cuban paintings.
It wasn’t long into Castro’s regime that the couple realized they’d have to leave Cuba.
“When they confiscated our bank accounts and took over our businesses,” Isaac says, “we were expecting it.”
Isaac ran a wholesale drygoods business there with his father and brother, Abe.
But one day, he pulled down its iron gate, and the family left for the airport ó even leaving pictures of the children on the walls of their apartment.
“At 32,” Sonia says, “you’re very gutsy.”
The family stayed in Florida for about eight months ó his father was there ó before settling in Charlotte, where another relative lived.
“What made me settle in Charlotte were the azaleas,” Isaac says.
“We came to Charlotte and we adjusted here and we love it,” Sonia says.
Once they were settled, Isaac began working in real estate.
“That’s the direction we went into,” he says. “Back in those years, you couldn’t give away land.”
Isaac and Abe are partners of Shamrock Management Corp., which owns apartments and shopping centers.
“I try to work every day,” Isaac says. “You know, it’s fun to be alive. I’m feeling good.”
Isaac disappears for a moment, and then comes back with a sheaf of prints ó serigraphs from Cundo Bermudez, a fellow Cuban who’s still painting at 93.
“See how beautiful they are,” he says, pulling out one and then the other.
Sonia points to one of the paintings that came with them from Cuba ó an abstract piece in grays of a woman by Portocarrero.
She gave the second painting to her brother.
The couple has never returned to Cuba.
“I miss it,” Isaac says, “but I remember the way it used to be. It would break my heart to see how everything is crumbling. I want to keep the good memories.”
Isaac has good memories, here, too, because he’s lived the American dream.
“It’s a great dream,” he says.
His goal when he arrived, he says, was “to establish myself and raise my family.”
His daughters work with him, while his son is a partner with Shumaker Loop and Kendrick. One granddaughter is a photographer, the other, an art history student.
Their son has his own collection.
“It’s good to inspire young people to collect,” Sonia says. “It’s important to support the artists. It’s a legacy. This is for the soul. This is healing.”
For more information about the Luski Collection at Foundation for the Carolinas, visit www.fftc.org and click on “About Us” and then click on “Our Glass Art Collection.”
Contact Susan Shinn at 704-797-4289 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Susan Shinn