Charlotte businessman, philanthropist Isaac Luski, dies

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Isaac and Sonia Luski loaned a large amount of artwork, especially glass work, to the Foundation for the Carolinas. The couple will be remembered as devoted patrons of the arts in Charlotte. Isaac passed away on Tuesday, Oct. 19.

The Observer File Photo

Isaac Luski loved the simpler pleasures of life: good music, good wine and good company.

He also loved art. There was so much of it in the Luskis’ SouthPark home that walking through it feels like a tour of a colorful, crowded, live-in museum.

Luski and his wife, Sonia, came to the United States from Cuba after fleeing Fidel Castro’s regime in 1960. They spent over half a century building a life — and an extensive art collection — in Charlotte.

Isaac Luski died peacefully at home at age 92 on Tuesday; his funeral was on Thursday. Sonia had died in 2019.

Luski’s array of artwork is just one piece of his legacy. He had a keen intellect, a generous spirit and a love for his adopted hometown, friends and family said.

He also was a prominent member of the local Jewish community, and helped establish Shalom Park.

“He had this passion for life,” said Shane Fero, an artist and friend. “He tried to impart that in people: really enjoy your life, and enjoy the beauty in your life.”

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An untitled glass work by Sidney Hutter on loan from Sonia and Isaac Luski was displayed in a first floor gallery named for the couple at the Foundation for the Carolinas in this 2011 file photo. The Charlotte Observer file photo

Fleeing from Castro

The Luskis were in their early 30s when they uprooted their life in Cuba to come stateside. It was 1960, about two years after Castro seized control of the island.

Pretending they were going on vacation, the Luski family flew to the U.S. with just four suitcases and two paintings they picked up on the way to the airport. One of those works, an abstract portrait of a woman in shades gray, still hangs above the mantle in their living room.

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In this undated photo, Sonia and Isaac Luski eat with Isaac’s cousin Gerry Grinberg in a famous Havana restaurant called “the little grocery store in the middle of the street”. HO

The prospect of starting over was not unfamiliar to the family. Isaac and Sonia’s parents had all left eastern Europe for Cuba in the early 20th Century, according to the Luskis’ son, Moses.

Moses said his parents always viewed fleeing Cuba “not as a defeat, but as an opportunity.”

“He moved forward,” youngest daughter Ellie Valenstein said. “They weren’t going to get stuck in what they had left, even though they loved their life in Havana.”

The couple saw potential in mid-century Charlotte, and they also had family there. They moved to the city shortly after arriving stateside, bought a house in SouthPark in 1962, and lived there over the decades.

Luski had helped run his family’s successful dry goods business in Cuba. He tried out a couple different ventures in Charlotte. What stuck was commercial real estate. He quickly built a successful business — and an extensive social network.

Moses said that growing up, people were always drifting in and out of his parents’ house for spontaneous brunches and dinner parties.

Artists, musicians, bankers and baseball players would drop by for a meal, gathering in the wood-paneled dining room. They’d listen to music, talk about politics and help themselves to servings of Isaac Luski’s signature black beans and rice, Moses said.

“(My parents) had this magnetism that people were attracted to,” he said. “They weren’t social show-offs. They just welcomed you into their home and let you be yourself and talk about the world.”

Fascinated by glass

Two lifelong lovers of crafts, Isaac and Sonia made a name for themselves as patrons of the arts. They were particularly drawn to works of glass.

“I was fascinated with the glass medium, the composition, the colors, the shapes,” Isaac told the Observer in 2002. He added that he felt about art like he felt about music: “It’s a healing process in my life.”

A few years later, he reiterated to the the Observer, “Glass is healing. You look at it and it makes you feel better.”

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This glass orb is one of the pieces that Isaac and Sonia Luski gave to the Foundation for the Carolinas for exhibition. Observer 2008 file photo

In their home, family photos share counter space with glass sculptures and vases. Chuck Close paintings gaze back at viewers from one side of the dining table. Even some of the furniture is art: in front of the red velvet couch, a wooden coffee table unfurls itself like the pages of a book.

By 2002, their collection had grown to more than 500 pieces. They shared widely, donating to museums, hospitals and libraries.

The Foundation for the Carolinas lobby in uptown is packed with pieces donated by the couple. The Sonia and Isaac Luski Gallery on the first floor of the nonprofit’s headquarters features contemporary glass art, a large painting of a cat and other works.

The Luskis took pride in the gallery’s free admission and ample seating. They wanted it to feel like home, they told the Observer in 2012. Isaac Luski encouraged patrons to touch the art.

“Isaac wanted art to be as accessible as it could possibly be,” Michael Marsicano, president and CEO of the Foundation for the Carolinas, told the Observer in an email. “He brought art out of the museums and into our community to the great joy of those who discover his collection in every corner of our city.”

Mariscano delivered the eulogy at Luski’s funeral at Temple Israel in Shalom Park. Memorials may be made to Temple Israel, Rabbi’s Tzedakah Fund or the Hebrew Cemetery. He is survived by Moses Luski and daughters Ellie Valenstein and Frances Luski.

A friend and patron

The Luskis also supported many individual artists.

“They admired the spirit of people who could make something,” Valenstein said.

Fero met Isaac Luski while at the Penland School of Crafts in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Spruce Pine, an institution the couple regularly supported. Luski became a patron of Fero’s work as well as a fatherly figure and a friend.

“It was just (Isaac and Sonia’s) demeanor, their approach to life… that reached a deeper level in me than him buying my work,” Fero said.

Of faith and good fortune

Beyond art, Isaac Luski was deeply involved in Charlotte’s Jewish community.

He also was part of the leadership group that helped establish the Shalom Park campus in south Charlotte. The 54-acre site serves as the center of Jewish life for many in the region.

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Isaac Luski was deeply involved in the city’s Jewish community and was a part of the leadership group that helped establish the Shalom Park campus, pictured here, in south Charlotte. Carolina Digital Photo Group LLC

His faith was important to him, his son said.

In many ways, Moses Luski said, his parents embodied the American dream, finding success and building a fruitful life in a new homeland.

“Seeing everything they had seen made them very adaptive, and made them realize that nothing was permanent,” he said. “But Charlotte was permanent.”

“Charlotte welcomed Isaac and Sonia with open arms,” Marsicano said. In return, he said, the couple gave back “generously and repeatedly.”

Leave the last word to Luski. He summed up his experiences nearly 20 years ago, in an Observer interview: “My father is the one who told me if the Lord has been good to you, you have to share.”

This story was originally published October 21, 2021 4:29 PM.

Hannah Lang covers banking and finance for The Charlotte Observer. She studied business journalism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and grew up in the same town as her alma mater.