Puppy Love

A lot of luck, a ton of hard work, a fearless approach, a savvy intuition and an affinity for dogs — these are the qualities that have helped Stephen Huneck carve his niche

by Rosalyn Graham

Stephen Huneck photoSt. Johnsbury artist Stephen Huneck has made his dogs the stuff of legend through his artwork, books, Dog Chapel and furniture. Backed by his collection of carving tools, he plays in his studio with Molly, his black Lab, and Sally, a golden retriever.

It all sounds so easy when Stephen Huneck talks about his business — a combination of luck, coincidence and following your heart. The burly, dark-haired artist sits with his elbows on the table, smoking cigarettes and drinking diet root beer, and tells stories about how, as a one-time art-student-turned-antiques-picker, he realized that his art could be a business.

“What happened was I made one carving and somebody saw it in my truck,” he says. “It was an angel. I said, ‘What will you give me for it?’ He said, ‘I’ll give you a thousand dollars.’ He took it to New York and showed it to an art dealer, and the art dealer started calling me every day saying, ‘Hey, I’d like to represent you.’ It was a really great opportunity to change my life and do something I wanted to do. I promised I would never, ever do antiques again.”

His next project, a life-size carving of two girls doing double-Dutch skip rope, sold immediately for $10,000. “I was off and running,” Huneck says. There was a downside, though. His independent soul, with his need to explore new paths, rebelled against being represented by major galleries that wanted to control his work. He’s been calling his own shots ever since.

Jen D'Agostino and Amanda McDermott photoJen D’Agostino (left), wholesale manager, and Amanda McDermott, customer service, work out of the gallery on Dog Mountain. Other employees work in the workshop, the Show House and Huneck’s gallery in Woodstock.

Wanting to make woodcuts, Huneck began to create charming, classically simple images of animals that appealed to all ages — and to art galleries and publishers. He moved from sculpture to woodcuts and new acclaim with a steadily growing crowd of fans, including Vermont’s Sen. Patrick Leahy and President Bill Clinton. 

Huneck recalls his initiation into publishing after Paul Gottlieb, publisher and CEO of Abrams Publishing, saw Huneck’s work in a Martha’s Vineyard gallery. He called and said, “You’ve got a new publisher — me.” 

“He asked me if I’d ever done children’s books. I said, ‘No, but I’ve got a book here called How to Write Children’s Books.’ I thumbed through it, and I remember this one section said, ‘Keep it simple,’ and I got it.” 

Huneck send off a dummy of the book in two weeks, says Gwen Huneck, his wife, whom he met in art school and who handles the marketing and public relations. “And it was a New York Times bestseller!” she exclaims.

The resulting series of books, written and illustrated by Huneck, was inspired by his black Lab, Sally, who starred in tales about visits to the farm, the mountains, the beach, the vet and a winter resort. In the 10th book, just sent off to the publisher last month, Sally gets a job. Not bad for somebody who says he never had higher than a D in English.

For many artists, a successful niche would be a comfortable place. Not so for Huneck. “Stephen’s nature is to be always looking for another medium to keep it interesting,” says Gwen. “He looks for one challenge after another; he has to take risks. He does continue with dogs as his subject, but always with new challenges.”

Nothing could have been more of a challenge than the health crisis he experienced about 10 years ago when, following a fall, he developed adult respiratory distress syndrome and was in a coma for two months. For those around him it was a terrifying time as doctors gave little hope for recovery and predicted serious aftereffects if he did wake up. Huneck remembers it as a time of “incredible dreams — very spiritual, very amazing.” 

When he came out of the coma, his intellect and his sense of humor were intact, but he had no muscular strength and had to relearn virtually everything from walking to writing. “It did make a giant difference in me,” he jokes. “I became a nice guy. I recognized that you don’t get upset about small things — and there are very, very few big things.”

Only two months after he came home from the hospital, an idea popped into his mind that prompted some people to speculate that he really had gone wacky. His idea was to build a chapel to celebrate the spiritual bond that humans have with their dogs. 

Becky Rybak, the gallery managerPeople from all over the world have visited the Dog Chapel, a place Huneck created to celebrate the bond between humans and dogs. Becky Rybak, the gallery manager, visits the Dog Chapel with some canine friends.

The ideal location was down the road from their home on Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury. That and other purchases have brought Dog Mountain’s acreage to 300. 

Visitors to the Dog Chapel might mistake the building for a typical small Vermont village church, except for the angel dog atop the tall steeple, the dog sculptures that dot the lawns and steps, and the sign that reads, “Welcome All Creeds. All Breeds. No Dogmas Allowed.” 

Visits to Dog Mountain and the Dog Chapel are free, and people from all over the world have visited, most coming to walk on the mountainside trails with their canine friends or spend time in the chapel remembering good companions, often leaving photographs and notes honoring those memories. Those too far away to come in person can visit the virtual chapel at the website. 

“When I thought of the Dog Chapel, everybody was telling me I was insane,” Huneck recalls. “Now it’s the biggest draw in the Northeast Kingdom.” The site is open year-round for visitors. There are dog parties and barbecues where dogs can have hamburgers and go swimming, and there are contests for the best singer, best dancer and best kisser.

When National Geographic designated the Northeast Kingdom as its first geotourism site with a map of places to explore, Dog Mountain was one of the highlights. “The whole concept of geotourism sounded so much like our vision for Dog Mountain,” Gwen says. “This is a place to commune with nature, to go off in the woods and see wild animals. Nature is the real focus.”

Next door is the Stephen Huneck Gallery, where the dogs of staff members rush to greet visitors, whose dogs are also welcome. The exhibits include everything from Huneck’s signature flying angel dog pins and mugs to bronze castings, from the very affordable to the high-ticket collectible. It is also the headquarters of Stephen Huneck Gallery Inc. 

The Showecase House photoThe Showcase House

Huneck does have a literary agent, Joel Gotler, who lives in Los Angeles and works from offices in L.A. and New York  negotiating book deals and movie deals, but all the marketing and public relations are done in-house says Gwen. 

“That’s my job, with input from Stephen, of course, and lots and lots of help from gallery manager Becky Rybak, Jennifer D’Augustino, Jill Brown and Val Davis, who produces a regular e-newsletter that goes to 5,000 folks who have requested it.”

Huneck has a studio farther up Spaulding Road, where he and Gwen live, and he has the quiet and solitude needed to gestate the next new idea, then carve it, or draw it or write it. 

In the one-time dairy barn next to the gallery, the production staff, six studio assistants and one shipping person, led by Huneck’s right-hand man, Mike Lamp, produce the prints, sculptures and furniture. The bronzes are produced in a specialty foundry. 

“We like to do as much as possible in-house,” says Gwen, “for one reason: It is a lot more fun, because Stephen can have a great idea in the morning, carve it and have a finished artwork sometimes by the end of the day.” (Huneck claims this is a bit of an exaggeration.) 

In a fine example of sustainability, they even make their own frames from Stephen’s designs. “We use wood from trees that need to be harvested from our forest,” Gwen says, quoting Stephen as saying, “‘The older and uglier the tree, the more beautiful the wood.’ We dry the wood in our own kiln, mill it, put the frame together, paint or varnish it, then frame Stephen’s artwork in acid-free mats cut on a state-of-the-art, computerized robotic mat-cutter by our full-time framer. How in-house can you get?”

Adds Huneck, “We also generate our own electricity. Sometimes we’re on the grid, sometimes off, depending on what kind of machinery we’re using.”

They are just finishing construction of a handsome stone Vermont farmhouse to display another of Huneck’s products — his functional art. Throughout the house, every room features chairs, tables, cabinets and decorations with the recognizable Huneck look. The Showcase House, as it is called, is a convenient place for decorators, designers and the general public to see Huneck’s work in a home setting.

It is also a convenient place for meetings, with coffee brewing in the kitchen and sun shining through the windows that look out onto the waterfall Huneck designed as part of the landscape. 

One sunny morning last month, the Hunecks sat down at the kitchen table with Paulette Pape to talk about the latest new direction in Huneck’s artistic and business world. 

Pape is a principal in GoDog, a New Jersey company that develops products for the pet industry. She explains that she and her business partner were aware of Huneck’s work and felt it was the perfect match for a new product line of gifts and boutique items with a pet theme that they are developing in partnership with Coleman Inc., the manufacturer of camping and outdoors equipment, with whom Huneck has an agreement to design pet products, including dog toys.

Pape calls Huneck’s work “wholesome and touching,” adding, “You can tell from looking at his artwork that he gets the relationship between people and their pets, and we sell to that.”

A formal launch is planned for this month at the Global Pet Expo in Orlando, and they expect to begin shipping products in June. “We’re thrilled,” Pape says. “We’ve found the right partner. His images are a perfect match.”

 “There’s no book written on how to be an artist,” says Huneck. As an artist — and author, sculptor, innovator and entrepreneur — maybe Huneck is the perfect person to attempt it. It would no doubt feature dogs ... lots of dogs. •