I am haunted by the death of Stephen Huneck, a wonderful and unique Vermont artist who died this week by his own hand. I may have been one of the first to write about Stephen, back in the early 1980s. A big bear of a man, he was outgoing, enterprising, not your typical artist but that worked to his advantage as he made his way into the complicated system of the art of selling art. For one thing, he looked more like a blacksmith than an artist. His art was various. He was a sculptor, a printmaker, a wood carver, an innovator. When I visited him that day, so long ago now, it was not to Dog Mountain, but to a red farmhouse in the hills north of St. Johnsbury. He was there with his wife Gwen and there were a million things going on. We were the same age and his lifestyle was similar to mine so we struck an immediate rapport. He had been an antique dealer and what he was doing then was what most of the young idealists were doing at that time: trying to earn a living in a way that kept him true to his gift: carving.
At the time, he gave me two of his “hot” sellers, winged dalmations. He had carved the mold and pressed out these fabulous little creatures in a resin that made them extremely durable. These could be worn as pins but I’ve always kept these angelic dogs pinned to the curtains in my office, magic charms. I felt lucky to have them as I watched from afar as his career blossomed. It seemed as if everything he touched turned to dog. And most of these dogs had wings. Mostly labs, which were his personal preference but, whatever, it always had to be about dogs. For Stephen, God was clearly dog spelled correctly. He had an extremely popular gallery in Woodstock, Vermont, that attracted New York money. But he never forgot our connection and always invited me to his openings though I rarely went. In 2002, I went to a book signing after the publication of his book The Dog Chapel— sort of like a children’s book for dog lovers, all about his famous dog chapel, along with a collection of his brightly colored woodcuts, each accompanied by a pithy saying, such as “If your dog is your guru, you could do a lot worse” and “A home without a dog is merely a shelter.” Even after all those years had passed, he remembered me and gave me a big bear hug. On the title page of my copy, he made a sketch of my dog and signed it exuberantly.
His work was warm and fun and whimsical, just as he was, or so it seemed, but there were demons, we now learn. Suicide leaves little doubt about that. But who knows what those demons were. His pain must have been intense. Stephen had already almost died once, sometime in the late 1990s. He fell and went into a coma, which lasted months. Few doctors felt he would recover and if he did, they didn’t think his condition would be good. But he did awaken and slowly, he recovered almost completely. Along with Gwen, his dogs, two labs named Sally and Dottie, brought him solace as he fought his way back to health. It was a long time coming, as I recall. He had to learn to walk again, among other struggles. He said the experience changed his life and he was joyful and grateful about that, grateful to his dogs, above all else. While he was recuperating, he had the inspiration to build his Dog Chapel, near the foot of his mountain, which he called Dog Mountain, outside of St. Johnsbury. A little gem of a building with a sign in front that boldly states: All Creeds, All Breeds, No Dogmas Allowed, the chapel became famous among dog enthusiasts, a destination for folks from all over the country, all over the world, folks who had suffered the loss of a dear friend, a dear dog. Stephen gave all dog lovers permission to come out, to openly celebrate their shameless, deep devotion to their dogs.
Dog Chapel is built like a 19th century New England village church in miniature. Bigger than a dog house but smaller than a house, inside are four hand-carved pews, with seated labs at the end of each pew, stained glass windows that feature his iconic winged dogs and a rug with the image of a dalmation hooked into it. Outside, the knobs to the two doors are in the image of dog heads and between the two doors, a dog door. On top of the steeple is a winged golden retriever in gold leaf. Few details are left out. Everyone is welcome. The walls are literally covered with messages and images of the pets people have lost. Stephen wanted everyone to come here and memorialize their lost pet on the “Remembrance Wall.” Even if you couldn’t come physically, Stephen urged people to send their remembrances by e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org) so that they could be posted.
After his death last Thursday, Gwen, wrote a letter to the press to explain what had happened. She wrote, “Like many, we have been adversely affected by the economic downturn. Stephen feared losing Dog Mountain and our home. On Tuesday, he had to lay off most of our employees. This hurt Stephen deeply. He cared about them and felt responsible for their welfare.” Two days after the layoffs, he shot himself in the head while sitting in his car outside his psychiatrist’s office.
And so we have lost a wonderful, magical artist who brought joy to so many. But, more than that, all dogs have lost an amazing friend and a tireless advocate, an artist who felt that dogs, more than people, understand and embody unconditional love. Stephen sat by their side, rendered them, watched their every move, worshipped them, cast them as angels. Stephen was to dogs what dogs are to us.
Stephen Huneck was larger than life, a man of joy and whimsy but also, apparently, a man of sorrows. On one page in The Dog Chapel, he writes, “It Hurts Beyond Words to Suffer the Loss of a Friend.” And the woodcut that illustrates that page is a black lab with golden wings, winging its way toward a bright star in the sky. May his path be swift and pain-free.