Local artist Billie Tusa’s hidden talents revealed in stunning oil paintings

On July 9, longtime Luling resident Billie Tusa, known as ‘Bo’ to friends and family, died at the age of 94 while living at the SummerHouse Ashton Manor assisted living facility. At the time of her death, several oil paintings of exquisite detail hung on the walls of her apartment– works of art few realized until now were painted with Tusa’s own brush.

The paintings, some attending her funeral would later learn, were part of a much larger body of artistic work she had painted herself over the latter part of her life.

“She was just a very friendly, sweet lady – very reserved,” Junie Champagne said, who had regular contact with Tusa the last two years of her life. “You could tell she was very humble.”

Champagne would see Tusa often during her weekly visits given Champagne’s mother-in-law was Tusa’s next door neighbor. One day while visiting she stopped in briefly to see Tusa for a few minutes, stepping inside her room. While there, Champagne happened to notice an original oil painting hung on the wall, and made a comment on how the striking the painting was.

“She said, ‘I painted that’ but it was almost like she didn’t even want to say anything,” Champagne said. “Then I started looking around – she let me look at the [other] paintings in her room – I was absolutely amazed. You can’t tell if somebody’s talented by just looking at them.”

Born in 1928, Tusa was originally from the town of Bogalusa. The reserved artist grew up, got married and moved to Kenner with her husband Michael, the couple eventually settling in the Willowdale area of Luling in 1977. It was in Luling where she lived the rest of her life, the last two years spent at local assisted living facility Summerhouse Ashton Manor.

Her only child Don Tusa, now 75, remembers as he grew up seeing his mother often sketching out drawings in her free time.

“When I was a young kid, she used to do little sketches in pencil,” Tusa said fondly.

His mother would go on to fill her notebook full of sketches based off various photos she found interesting in magazines, newspapers or other places.

Tusa worked as an office manager for a local engineering firm, a job she would later retire from in 1990. After her only child Don graduated high school and joined the US Navy, Tusa’s newly found free time and lifelong interest in art eventually led her to explore oil painting.

Proving no one is ever too old to learn anything new, sometime around the age of 50 years old, Tusa began taking classes and studying oil painting techniques, a hobby that quickly became her favorite pastime for the next thirty years of her life.

“As she got further on, the quality just kept getting better and better and better as her experience [improved],” Tusa said of his mother’s work.

His mother would go on to turn out dozens of oil paintings, painting her last canvas in her early 80s around 2010, the year her husband died. She avoided acrylic and watercolor mediums, opting for strictly oil painting.

“Everything [she painted] was [in] oil,” her son Don said, “and then eventually the last few years she started painting on glass as well.”

Her son estimates she created somewhere between 75 and 100 oil paintings during her lifetime, around 50 of which he still retains as part of his own collection; the others have since been sold off to various individuals over the years.

“She never thought her paintings were all that good, so she never sold anything commercially,” Tusa explained. “She sold [paintings] to friends or to acquaintances that met my dad and saw them, who asked to buy them.”

The subjects she chose to paint often varied, choosing whatever subjects interested her visually. She enjoyed painting animals and wildlife; one painting is a study of a horse’s head, while some paintings feature exotic animals such as a pair of tigers, one resting on the other. There are Audubon-inspired bird paintings, nature stills and some with seaside views. Several of her paintings feature classic Louisiana themes, such as shrimp boats with nets spread out over water, steamboats or old plantation homes with moss-laden trees.

Tusa considers his mother’s painting of the St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans her best work – a painting he keeps proudly on display in his Harvey area home.

Unlike most paintings and photographs of the St. Louis Cathedral, Tusa’s rendition features an interesting western-angled side view of the cathedral after a light rain. The painting reveals moody, shadowed features and dark storm clouds retreating, while a reflection of the cathedral is shown through a light sheen of water on the ground. The painting remains a lasting testament to the skill she had acquired as a true artist over her lifetime.


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