Vt. folk artist Stephen Huneck, creator of Dog Mountain studio and chapel, dies at 60

Friday, January 8, 2010

Artist Stephen Huneck, ‘dog chapel’ founder, dies

MONTPELIER, Vt. — Folk artist Stephen Huneck, whose whimsical paintings, sculptures and woodcut prints of dogs celebrated his love of animals and won him a worldwide fan base, has died. He was 60.

Huneck, of St. Johnsbury, committed suicide Thursday in Littleton, N.H. His wife said he was despondent after being forced to lay off employees at his Dog Mountain studio and dog chapel.

“Like many Americans we had been adversely affected by the economic downturn,” Gwen Huneck wrote in a letter Friday announcing his death.

“Stephen feared losing Dog Mountain and our home. Then on Tuesday we had to lay off most of our employees. This hurt Stephen deeply. He cared about them and felt responsible for their welfare,” she wrote.

Two days later, he shot himself in the head while sitting in a parked car outside the office of his psychiatrist, she said.

“He was one of the most creative and active members of the Vermont crafts community,” said Jennifer Boyer, co-owner of the Artisans Hand craft gallery in Montpelier. “I appreciate how much energy he put into his works, which were whimsical and sardonically funny. He really had a unique sense of humor.”

A native of Sudbury, Mass., he started out whittling wooden sculptures and later dog-themed furniture, like the wooden pews eventually installed in the chapel, which he built in 2000, a miniature version of the 19th-century churches that dot Vermont’s landscape.

Built of wood harvested from his 175-acre Dog Mountain property, it had vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows with images of dogs pieced into them.

“Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed,” says the sign outside.

“When dogs pull up in here, they may never have been here before, but it’s like they saw the ‘Disneyland’ sign,” said Huneck in a 2008 interview with The Associated Press. “They just get so excited, so happy,” he said.

Dog lovers would make the trip to Vermont just to see the chapel, many writing handwritten notes to their long-gone pets and affixing them to the interior walls, where they remained.

Huneck’s books, about his beloved Labrador retrievers, including “Sally Goes to the Beach,” ”Sally Goes to the Farm” and “Sally Gets a Job,” featured woodcut prints accompanied by quirky captions.

“They were totally unique, very insightful, particularly for dog lovers,” said Irwin Gelber, executive director of the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum, a library and art center where Huneck frequently gave readings. “He seemed to create works and captions that just captured that expressed every dog lover’s insights into owning and loving animals.”

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