A Vermont folk artist and businessman who I admired took his own life this week. The papers said he was despondent over financial difficulties and being forced to lay off most of his employees.
Stephen Huneck loved art and loved dogs. He combined those passions into a body of work that many artisans never accomplish. He was a self-taught artist, print-maker, woodcarver, furniture builder, gallery owner, childrens’ book author, illustrator and entrepreneur. He built a beautiful home, studio and gallery complex called Dog Mountain in St. Johnsbury, Vermont that included a unique chapel for dogs (www.dogmt.com/chapel) and ran another gallery in Woodstock, Vermont.
The Chapel at Dog Mountain
I once met Huneck and told him I how much I liked his work. I always hoped to sometime have a chance to talk with him at length. It’s a grim reminder never to put off taking time to talk with people you admire.
I wanted to ask him how he found time to cram all the things he did into his life. How he developed his quirky sense of humor. How he came up with his ideas. How he overcame his debilitating injuries. And how he balanced his art and business.
In addition to Huneck’s artistic ability, droll humor and keen sense of design, I admired his high standards of craftsmanship. His eccentric furniture was sturdy, beautifully built and flawlessly painted. His hand-made picture fames were perfectly mitered and finished. His art prints and greeting cards were beautifully printed on high-quality paper. And the detail on the chapel was exquisite.
His work is held in both private and public collections including the Smithsonian Institution, New York's Museum of American Folk Art and the Contemporary Museum of Art in Sydney, Australia. Stephen Huneck was a guy who I thought had the world on a string.
His suicide really resonates with me. I’ve had several bouts with depressions in my life. The worst one lasted for several years after my father died. During that period, my advertising agency floundered, forcing me to lay off loyal, long-term employees. Then a friend and business partner turned out to be a pathological liar who cheated me out of thousands of dollars, caused me to lose my investment property and nearly lose my home.
It was a period during which I struggled to find any reason to continue. I was obsessed with thoughts of suicide. Thanks to some excellent books, medication, a good therapist and a supportive family, I bounced back.
I can’t help wishing I could have had that talk with him. Told him I was once where he was. That I know how hopelessly overwhelming depression can be. And let him know he could be happy again. But he probably wouldn’t have listened any more than I would have back then.
Each one of us is valuable in our own way, but it seems more tragic when a person who has given the world so much joy feels so much pain and failure.
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