By Ted Loos
Remembering the folk artist and furniture craftsman Stephen Huneck.
A time-honored trope in Western culture has it that creativity and depression go hand in hand, that artists are “born under the sign of Saturn.” Whether or not there really is such a thing as creative melancholy, artists from the Renaissance to today have drawn on the power of their inner demons to make powerful work, or used their work to keep darkness from encroaching—sometimes successfully, sometimes not.
When I profiled the Vermont-based artist Stephen Huneck in this magazine 17 years ago, I realized that he belonged to this company. His fanciful, witty woodcarvings and furniture—especially those involving dogs—were often sweet and upbeat, but he had an acknowledged dark side stemming from an unhappy -childhood. He also had a background as a faker of antiques, which he discussed openly with me.
I thought he was one of the lucky ones, an artist who had found a way to channel all of his turmoil into art. So when I stumbled on Huneck’s New York Times obituary this past February, I had to sit down. He had committed suicide at 61, it said, in part because the recession had forced him to lay off many of the employees in his art business, which had really taken off in the time since I had visited him in 1992.
This fall is a particularly apt time to reflect on Huneck’s legacy, with the recent release of his book Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven (Abrams, $19.95). The title alone is sad, given the circumstances of his death. And the introduction, written just before he died, is even more wrenching. He talks about his struggles in a straightforward way, especially his battle with the respiratory illness that put him in a coma at one point. The outpouring of affection he received after he came out of the coma particularly affected him. He wrote, “The universe had given me a second chance and I wanted to make the most of it.”
But I find a lot that’s heartening in the book, too. First of all, it’s a keepsake for those of us that enjoyed his art and knew him. And Huneck’s message has always been about redemption—in particular, the healing effect that animals have on humans. The key image in the book is probably one of his hand-built Dog Chapel, part of a multi-use retreat in St. Johnsbury, Vt., called Dog Mountain (dogmt.com), which has become his best-known work. It shows a winged Labrador retriever emanating heavenly rays as it sits perched at the top of the chapel’s spire. The accompanying text reads, “Dogs can save us, body and soul.”
Huneck was a New Englander through and through. Raised in Sudbury, Mass., he left home at 17 and as a young man drove a cab in Boston. He may be the only person to have dropped out of the Massachusetts College of Art twice-—he truly wanted to learn, but the experience was a “total bummer,” he told me. Eventually he also started buying antique furniture and repairing it, which taught him woodworking. That led to a period of dealing—including making new pieces and passing them off as old country antiques, circa 1820 Vermont. “I’d go to an auction and everybody there knew I did it,” he told me. “Everyone knew. But people see what they want to see.” (The Times obit tactfully omitted mention of this topic.)
Luckily, Huneck struck off on his own and got gallery representation for his real work just as the studio furniture movement of the ’80s was cresting. A burgeoning market wanted handcrafted pieces, and Huneck’s style looked like no one else’s. His Disney-meets-Magritte aesthetic was totally his own: Chairs that look like nuns and force the sitter into the sisters’ laps; a ladder-back chair with a splat formed by businessmen’s handshakes.
Working with his wife and business partner, Gwen, Huneck took his personal obsessions (dogs, religion, traditional American furniture) and eventually turned them into a huge financial success. For someone who was totally self-taught as a carver, a true outsider artist, this was quite an achievement.
Although talented with a gouge, Huneck never succeeded on artistry alone. It was the heartfelt quality of the images, the way they foiled any attempt at irony, that put them over. Even if they were too cutesy for you, you didn’t doubt their sincerity, and you respected that. His other tool was humor, from his observations of everyday life to his clever use of scale and metaphor. That skill turned a lot of doubters into fans, partly because the wit added a dash of vinegar to the sweetness in Huneck’s art.
Now, those fans are understandably worried about the future of Dog Mountain and the rest of Huneck’s legacy. “I’m 100 percent committed to keeping the Mountain open,” his widow, Gwen, said when I called her at home in St. Johnsbury over the summer. “This was the largest and most personal artwork of his life.” This year is the 10th anniversary of its opening.
Though the unique combination of canine-centric gallery, chapel, and hiking trails got a lot of attention, Gwen also acknowledged how Huneck’s books have brought his art to a wider audience, particularly a series (also published by Abrams) about a Lab named Sally. “He was in a rush to finish this one,” she said, referring to Even Bad Dogs Go to Heaven. “I think he was thinking [about suicide] for a long time.”
Perhaps the strangest twist of all is Gwen’s theory that her husband may have killed himself precisely to save Dog Mountain—that he was betting on the uptick of interest that often follows an artist’s death. Sure enough, there has indeed been an increase in visitors and sales this year.
Huneck’s passing does not mean a lack of material for people who want to buy his work. He was incredibly prolific, and he made prints from his woodcuts in large editions. The extant sculpture molds, made from his original wood carvings, means more of those can be made, too, in materials from bronze to resin. “Just with what he already made, I could keep a million people busy for 500 years,” Gwen told me. (She’s already been able to rehire many of the workers who were laid off.) “He was a doer, not a talker. He’d wake up and say, ‘I’m going to carve a Lab-shaped toilet paper holder,’ and by that night it would be done.”
That’s about as good an encomium as I can imagine—the perfect combination of inspired creativity and sheer industriousness. Huneck was definitely a tortured artist in some fundamental way, but he kept the demons at bay long enough to make a big impact. “He had a brutalized childhood, and he could have made work full of angst,” Gwen said as we ended our conversation. “Instead of the negative, he chose to dwell on the positive and to leave the world a better place than the one he came into.”