Stephen Huneck | Here In New England
When artist Stephen Huneck died last year, he left behind his beautiful Dog Mountain park and chapel, his whimsical dog art and books, and so many questions. The answers were as simple—and as complex—as his life.
The gallery at Catamount Arts seems hardly large enough to fit it all: handcrafted furniture, sculptures, woodcut prints. In his 25 years as a carver, Stephen Huneck produced enough wood shavings to fill a room this size, but it will have to do. This retrospective is not just an opportunity to view Huneck’s lifework; it’s also one last chance for the town of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, to say goodbye.
Stephen Huneck died in his car on January 7, 2010. The news couldn’t have been more shocking. In the art world, Huneck had made a name for himself as an upbeat artist with a whimsical style. In public, he was known as a jovial bear of a man with a personality as large as his overgrown mustache. To everyone, he was someone you wanted around when you needed a laugh. But in a flash on a cold winter morning, he was gone, and no one understood why. Every death leaves questions, some more than others.
On the edge of Faulkner Park in Woodstock, Vermont, there’s a house with a very odd weathervane. Instead of a thoroughbred or a rooster, Jim Bryant’s cupola is topped with a dog angel. “People will walk by and look up and recognize that it’s a Lab with wings, and they start laughing,” Jim chuckles. “Every time that happens, it’s another reminder of Stephen.”
Jim first met Stephen about 15 years ago, after frequent trips to Huneck’s gallery in Woodstock. “No one would leave the gallery without a big smile on their face,” Jim recalls. He remembers bringing his sister there for the first time: “Within minutes she was roaring with laughter. There was a piece of furniture; it was a life-size nun. To open the cabinet, you had to …” Jim trails off, laughing. “You had to put your hands on the nun’s chest!”
Stephen, raised in Sudbury, Massachusetts, began sculpting wood in the mid-1980s, and his puckish sense of humor quickly distinguished him from his contemporaries. “The art at that time was very angst-driven; very political and negative and dark,” recalls Gwen Huneck, Stephen’s wife and his companion since 1975. Stephen focused instead on subjects that made him happy, and more than anything he found joy in dogs. He’s probably best remembered for his series of woodcut prints featuring dogs in humorous situations, with pithy captions. One depicts a dog sniffing under another’s tail, with the caption “Greetings.” Another shows a dog surrounded by its family and reads, “Dogs make people human.”
Many of his prints featured the same dog, a black Lab in a red collar. She was modeled after Stephen’s own dog, Sally, and Stephen would go on to write a series of children’s books based on her adventures. His second book, Sally Goes to the Beach, was a New York Times best-seller. With his simple, upbeat message, Stephen quickly found an audience with both children and adults. “Who’s against nature and love and dogs?” Gwen asks. “Well, a couple people, but not many.”
As Stephen’s success grew, he and Gwen made a home for themselves in St. Johnsbury. They fixed up an old post-and-beam house, injecting Stephen’s imagination into every detail. The banister is a wiener dog, the bathroom faucet a bronze Labrador (pull the tail down for water). Stephen hand-carved most of the furniture and spent a summer inscribing bright, joyful sunflowers into the kitchen cabinets. He built an expansive studio where he’d go early every morning, still half-dreaming, and start on his next creation. A print above his worktable riffs on his “Greetings” piece with an image of himself sniffing under a dog’s tail, with the caption, “Dog Fanatic.” “We didn’t sell many of those,” Gwen jokes.
A mile down the road from his home, Stephen created his masterpiece: a 150-acre dog park, free and open to the public, with trails, forests, and a swimming pond. He dubbed it “Dog Mountain.” At the center of it he erected a classic Vermont chapel dedicated to the memories of lost pets. “Stephen wanted a place where people could find closure,” Gwen explains. “He also wanted to create the perfect spot to bond and have fun with your dog while your dog’s alive.” It’s become a pilgrimage site for dog lovers, drawing visitors from around the world.
Despite Stephen’s success, the recession took its toll on his business. Usually jovial in public, Stephen began showing signs of strain. Just before Christmas 2009, Gwen and Stephen had lunch with Jim and his family. Jim noticed Stephen’s hands shaking and asked about it. “I have to get through this winter,” Stephen replied. “I just have to get through this winter.”
Then in January, Gwen got a call from Stephen’s psychiatrist, saying that he’d never arrived for his appointment. She went looking for him and found his car parked in front of his doctor’s office. From a distance it looked as though he were sitting in the front seat reading the newspaper, but as she approached the car, the truth became clear. Stephen had shot himself. “I think he was trying to spare me that,” Gwen recalls. “It ended up I was the one to discover him, but I think he was trying to spare me that experience.”
The interior of the Dog Chapel glows in the late afternoon. The sunlight catches in a row of stained-glass windows that celebrate the qualities of canine companionship: loyalty, play, trust. On every inch of wall there are remembrances, two or three layers deep in places: pictures of lost pets, with notes–some heartbreakingly raw and sincere–trying to put into words the complex bond of love and friendship we feel when we say, “Good dog.” It’s a peaceful, disarming space. Of all the small tragedies that befall mankind, the loss of a pet may be the most universal. It’s a pain that binds us together, and here in this chapel Stephen created a safe place to heal.
Gwen sits in one of the five small pews. Her own dogs–Molly, Daisy, and the current incarnation of Sally, the third one and the first male (his full name is “Salvador Doggie”)–mill about the chapel. Occasionally one of them nudges at Gwen’s hand for a scratch.
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