Nestled into the rugged environs of Northernmost Vermont is a wonderful place where nature and art, the whimsical and the spiritual, all collide in joyous celebration. Entering artist Stephen Huneck’s 400-acre Dog Mountain farm is like stepping into another world, and it is immediately apparent that in this world, dogs are much more than just family pets—they are the inspiration and cornerstone of Huneck’s life and work.
Renowned from Nantucket to Tokyo for his beautiful hand-carved furniture and playful wooden sculptures, many of which feature dogs as subject or motif, Stephen Huneck is also widely beloved for his Sally books, a series of children’s stories inspired by the antics of his inimitable black Labrador Retriever, Sally. Huneck is a master printmaker, interior designer, stained-glass artist, builder and multimedia artist—and in case that wasn’t enough, he has plans to delve soon into monumental sculpture and holographic art.
With such breadth and depth to his many creative endeavours, this artistic dynamo is difficult to categorize, but that’s just the way he likes it. “I don’t use labels,” says Huneck, “and I don’t think of myself in terms like ‘sculptor’ or ‘writer.’ What I do is I think of something I would love to have, and I make it.” He is aware that he is often referred to as a folk artist, but that label doesn’t sit entirely well with him, especially as it is most commonly understood. “I don’t feel good about it,” he explains, “because I think of it as hokey: people trying to copy a nineteenth-century mentality. But I do like the concept of ‘folk art’ as art for everybody, which is what folk art really was. I want my work to be accessible and affordable. I’m not looking to deal with just the Arnold Schwartzeneggers of the world. ‘Folk art,’ in that sense, is Art for People. I can really respond to that.”
Perhaps Frank Miele, a Manhattan art dealer who once represented Huneck, put it best when he said, “Stephen Huneck is not so much a folk artist as an outstanding American artist whose works have an indigenous quality. He has literally carved out a niche of his own. He has never lost the curiosity and sense of humour of a young child. That is what gives his work its enormous freshness and spontaneity.”
Those qualities are in great evidence in Laura Beach’s new book, The Art of Stephen Huneck (Harry N. Abrams, 2004), from which Miele’s comment was obtained. This richly illustrated biography is itself a masterpiece, offering a truly fascinating overview of Huneck’s life and work. The mind-boggling scope of Huneck’s talent is quickly apparent as one leafs through the volume, but even with over 200 colour plates, one only gets a small taste of Huneck’s enormous artistic output. “It was really difficult to pick and choose what went into that book,” says Huneck. “We could easily have filled a dozen of them.”
Huneck has also managed to fill five galleries selling his work exclusively in various parts of the U.S. Huneck prefers running his own galleries to having his work represented by others, as he can then make sure that his staff and the ambience remain true to his values. As he explains, “There’s an elitism and snobbishness in the art world that discourages people from participating in art and enjoying it. To prevent that, I tell my staff right off that the most important thing is that I want people to feel welcome and happy, and not under any pressure to buy anything. I want them to enjoy the gallery as an experience. It’s great to see everyone—young kids, old people— all walking around, smiling and happy.” And of course, dogs are always welcome and are sure to locate a treat or two at any Huneck gallery.
Dogs are also more than welcome at the Dog Chapel, a remarkable, traditionally styled New England chapel that Huneck built on Dog Mountain to celebrate the spiritual bond between dogs and humans. Huneck considers the chapel to be his greatest and most personal work, and a look inside reveals why. Every element of the chapel, from the gorgeous stained-glass windows to the hand-carved wooden pews, was lovingly created by Huneck and speaks of the profound connection he feels to the canine soul. What is most satisfying to Huneck, however, is how much the chapel has meant to so many who have gone there to remember a beloved dog who has passed on. To that end, Huneck has started a “Remembrance Wall” in the chapel, inviting people to bring or mail in photos of their departed dogs, along with a written paragraph, if they wish, to be posted on the wall. “It became so popular,” says Huneck, “that the Remembrance Wall is now Remembrance Walls. It’s really a very good and comforting thing.”
Asked if he’s ever received any flak from religious factions for building a dog chapel, Huneck answers, “When I was conceptualizing doing it that was a concern, but it’s been just the opposite. I’ve never gotten any flak and I’ve had a lot of ministers here. What was funny was when the chapel was completed, Fox News sent a reporter up here to do a story on it. They immediately went down to the local Catholic church and asked the priest all these leading questions trying to get him to say something negative, but he just said it’s really a wonderful thing that adds a lot to the area. I think there’s a fine line and I’ve sort of maintained that. I’m not making fun of anyone or anything. People understand and appreciate that.”
First conceived in a vision after a near-death experience in 1994, the chapel, remarkable as it already is, may soon see some amazing additions. Explains Huneck, “I’ve been researching holograms. I want to make holograms of my sculptures for the chapel, like a sculpture of an angel dog with its wings moving, that will just appear to you when you’re standing in the right place. And when you move on to other places, other images will appear. It’s doable, I just have to learn more.”
Huneck also has plans to create a monumental 50-foothigh sculpture of his beloved Sally (whom he lost to old age in 2002) on top of a mountain on his farm. “It will be sort of my own Mount Rushmore for Sally.” Like the holograms, he doesn’t yet know exactly how he’s going to do it, but for Huneck, diving into the unknown is de rigueur. “Taking on new art forms is my antidote to boredom,” says Huneck, who has learned to be absolutely fearless in the face of the unfamiliar. “You just let your inner self take over and keep it simple. And you realize that there are times when a lack of knowledge is very liberating.” Huneck speaks of the freedom children feel to create art and wishes that more people could retain that kind of creative openness. “If we could all be five again, we could make some great art,” he believes. “It’s our rigidity and fear of failure that prevent us from doing it later.”
Susan Kauffmann lives in Langley, B.C., and writes regularly for Modern Dog. Her Malamute, Kuma, has requested a pilgrimage to Dog Mountain.