March 4, 1998

The Dog Artist

I just love stories about people who are doing their own thing. Stephen Huneck, profiled in the Boston Globe Magazine on February 1, 1998, lives way up in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, a place just south of the Canadian border known principally for its truck depots. He landed there in 1978 after a couple of failed attempts at art school.

In the winter of 1984 he was snowed in there for two days He had an idea about carving an angel and he started working with a beautiful piece of pine. Someone saw the finished piece in the back of his pickup and insisted on buying it. It ended up in the hands of an important folk art dealer in Manhattan who asked for more pieces. A career was born and it flourished.

Ten years into his successful career, Huneck was struck with a virulent strain of pneumonia like the one which killed the Muppets’ Jim Henson. He lapsed into a coma for two months, but he made it through. He says he came out a different person: “I also lost a lot of anger during the coma. I’m more mellow now. It also changed my art. My new stuff seems to me more complex: more life-affirming, more playful, and yet more fearless.”

Huneck is known internationally as “the dog artist” for his many sculptures of dogs. He combines his love of canines with whimsy in pieces like a dining room table with four begging Dalmatians holding up a glass top.

His love of dogs and his illness have taken him to a different place: “After my illness, there is no little picture anymore, only the big picture.” His master plan is for a church for dogs, called St. Bernard’s, on a hilltop in St. Johnsbury. “I’ll carve dog pews; the music will be Gregorian chant, mixed with the howling of wolves. I’m going to paint a dog version of the Sistine Chapel, with angel dogs and the hand of God. The church will be lighted with stained-glass windows done with scenes of dogs.”

He knows that he will offend some, but he is just being playful and going with his own truths. “Growing up in a Catholic family didn’t teach me anything about love. It’s dogs who have taught me how to truly love.”

I admire Huneck for sticking to his vision. He has a unique perspective to give to the world. “When you build something, you are creating energy and the releasing it gracefully into the world.” His graceful message, about playful dogs and unconditional love, needs to be out in the world.

March 3, 1998

Ski Adventures

A new ski mountain can be a terrifying experience. But its ferocity does not have anything to do with the size of the mountain or the difficulty of the terrain. It is terrifying to me because it is new and different.

For months my son had been campaigning to ski Loon Mountain in New Hampshire. I have skied it a few times over the years, but we do most of our skiing at Waterville Valley, New Hampshire. I know that mountain and the facilities like the back of my hand. I am at home there.

My son’s request was a reasonable one, but I fought it for a long time. I came up with many excuses, but eventually I gave in.

My problems began on the highway. I got off one exit too soon. I tried to handle this smoothly, but I knew that I had been caught. I had made a mistake and I looked stupid. I hate to make mistakes. I hate to look stupid. There seems to be no gradations to my mistakes. All mistakes are big ones.

We eventually arrived at the mountain and then the fun really began for me. Where is the correct entrance to the parking lot? Whew, I found it and I did not look too bad. Cars are parking at both ends because there is a lodge at both ends. Which one is the best lodge for us? I chose one. Where is the best entrance to the lodge? I picked the wrong one but we made it in. How do you get to the ticket window from here? I went out the wrong end of the building and ended up wandering around through the service entrance.

Can you just see me through all of this? Can you see how stupid I look? I know that everyone for miles is noticing just how stupid I look. My neck and shoulder muscles are coiling tighter and tighter. We need ski rentals and I finally lower myself to ask where the place is because I cannot find it. Oh yes, it is in the other lodge, of course. I cannot even pick the right lodge!

My son wants a trail map, but I have no interest in one. Carrying one of those is like wearing a big badge that says “STUPID.” I hate to even look at the posted trail maps while we are out on the slopes, because everyone will know that I am stupid and do not belong there.

What is this stuff all about? It seems to be several things rolled into one: perfection, control and the need to always look good. It is about invulnerability.

Real men are invulnerable. Women may not know what I am talking about, but every man does. In our culture, being a man means being strong, being on top of things, and being in control. For me, to take anything less than an invulnerable stance carries powerful shame. It makes me a failure. It makes me a mistake.

Think about the typical male experience of refusing to ask for directions. Is that any different? How can a male admit that he does not know something and ask for help if he is supposed to be invulnerable?

At the mountain there were greeters - men and women whose sole job it was to stand around and answer questions from people like me. But I could not connect with them. Invulnerability exacts a price. It cuts me off from connection and intimacy. People connect better when they expose their weakness, or so I have read.

The solution to getting rid of this requirement of invulnerability is connection and intimacy. However, invulnerability does not allow connection and intimacy. It is one of those Catch-22 things.

I wish that the issues which arose for me during a simple ski trip were isolated to ski trips, but they are not. These issues of culturally conditioned invulnerability, of being unable to ask questions, and of being unable to ask for help, are constant threads that run through my life. Awareness is the first step. The next step is to work slowly at making connections. I hope that over time I can replace these threads of invulnerability with a weave of connection and intimacy. Maybe then I will be ready for another mountain.