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Tom Huck shouldn't need a microphone not even here, in the cavernous Potosi High School gymnasium. The 35-year-old St. Louis artist is loud by default, his voice pitched somewhere between carnival barker and hellfire preacher. But on this Monday evening in November, as he speaks at a ceremony inducting new members into the school's chapter of the National Honor Society, his voice wavers and nearly cracks.
"I have spoken all over the world to kids in colleges and museums," Huck says, leaning into the microphone, "and I've got to tell you, I am absolutely horrified."
Potosi, a town of roughly 2,600 located about 70 miles southwest of St. Louis in Washington County, was founded in the early 1800s to exploit the area's tremendous lead deposits. Today it's known mostly for Potosi Correctional Facility, home of Missouri's Death Row. According to the 2000 census, the median household income here is $17,702, the individual poverty rate 31.4 percent.
Potosi High sits at the bottom of a hill below the town's main thoroughfare, East High Street, a stretch of antique stores and pawnshops, Mama T's Country Cafe and City Hall. A few steps from the strikingly new public library sits a funeral home. Banners trumpet Potosi as "A City for All Seasons," and many windows display purple-and-gold signs or pieces of apparel in support of the Trojans, the high school football team. As East High Street nears Highway 21, the older buildings give way to fast-food joints, gas stations and auto-title and payday-loan outlets.
Tom Huck was born in nearby Farmington but grew up in Potosi and graduated from Potosi High in 1990. His parents and two younger sisters still live here.
This is no ordinary homecoming, though.
"I went through a lot of crap down here," Huck admitted as I drove him to Potosi earlier that evening. "But I probably wouldn't make the art that I make or be the person I am if I hadn't been through this horrible place."
Huck's mood wasn't entirely glum. Pointing out a billboard for a local real estate agent, he laughed and said the guy had been the biggest bully in high school. The bullies always end up involved in real estate or become cops. "There's nothing more dangerous than a bored cop," Huck said, then corrected himself. "What's even more dangerous is a bored, small-town cop."
Potosi is the wellspring of the work and, some might argue, the butt of the joke that has made Huck perhaps the most acclaimed St. Louis artist of his generation: large woodcuts that satirize rural America in grotesque, violent and extraordinarily painstaking detail. The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum are a few of the institutions that own Tom Huck prints.
New York Times art critic Ken Johnson wrote that Huck's recent suite of prints, entitled "The Bloody Bucket," features "jam-packed compositions [that] are gleefully obscene and violent without being too offensive, and the prints are technically impressive." Former Riverfront Times art critic Ivy Cooper was less restrained: "Tom Huck is one for the ages, up there with his influences Dürer, Hogarth and Crumb."
"Tom is going to be considered one of the most famous artists that ever came out of the state of Missouri," says Philip Slein, owner of Philip Slein Gallery on Washington Avenue and, since they met as Master of Fine Arts candidates at Washington University, one of Huck's best friends. "Not everybody finds his work easy, and not everyone wants to live with his work because it's very graphic. But I tell people, 'Listen, even if you don't like it, buy it, put it under your bed, put in your closet. You're going to be glad.'"
Carmon Colangelo, dean of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University (where Huck teaches printmaking), calls Huck an "incredible artist." Adds Colangelo: "We're lucky he's decided to stay in St. Louis."
Jerry Richards, a business teacher at Potosi High School and the faculty sponsor of the National Honor Society "a good guy," Huck says arranged for Huck to speak tonight because he wanted students to see that you can do something "fun" and still earn a living. Later he will call Huck "one of the best speakers we've had."
Huck was so nervous before the ceremony he feared he might vomit. His face paled when he learned he'd be sitting onstage, next to the principal. It didn't help that he'd arrived at the school two hours early. He killed time wandering the halls, looking at old class photos, trophies and memorials to students killed in drunk-driving accidents.
It also didn't help that the ceremony seemed to have been designed expressly to discomfort Huck. The students, wearing sport shirts and ties or prim dresses, entered the gymnasium in a candlelight procession. After the audience stood to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, a student offered a benediction to Jesus Christ. The school choir sang "We Fall Down," which features the refrain, "And we cry holy, holy, holy/Is the lamb."
Huck, by contrast, cuts a devilish figure: shaved head, goatee, thin black glasses framing darting, mischievous eyes. On this evening he wears what might as well be his uniform: dark slacks and a gray Dickies work shirt, its short sleeves revealing the greenish-gray tattoos intertwined along both his arms.