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.

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