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Principal Rhonda Phares introduces Huck. Before she mentions anything about his work, she notes that he was a member of the only football team in school history to play in the state semifinals. In fact, Huck sought out his team picture as he wandered around the school he sat in the front row, number 52, a defensive lineman with a wispy mustache and his speech will credit his football coach with instilling in him the "three D's: dedication, determination and desire."
Huck was not, however, a member of the National Honor Society. At the start of his speech, he says he didn't know what the National Honor Society was until twenty minutes ago.
"I never would have been let in this club," he tells the students.
But Huck's speech makes clear that he doesn't want or need to belong to this club now. He tells the students that their classmates who aren't in the National Honor Society may also excel that standardized-test scores are irrelevant once you've left high school. He encourages them both to question authority and seek their parents' advice.
Huck's voice grows stronger as his speech near its conclusion, and what began as advice to Potosi's brightest students has become an artist's statement of purpose: "I am asked regularly about why I do what I do and why it is so satirical in its nature. I tell them it is all about one word: revenge.
"You will be doubted by a lot of people. The doubters from all areas of your life can be of great inspiration to you especially from your high school years. Making your doubters eat crow is the sweetest revenge of all."
"This shit fights you. It doesn't want you to carve the dashes out of it."
Tom Huck is sitting in a chair in Evil Prints, his printmaking studio in the University Lofts building on Washington Avenue. In front of him stands a piece of Maine birch plywood roughly eight feet high by four feet wide. Covering the entire surface of this block of wood is an intricate, nightmarish drawing: a woman lying on an operating table, contorted with pain, while a team of sinister nurses grafts parts from a bird onto her body.
This will become the central panel of The Transformation of Brandy Baghead, a triptych that tells the story of a beauty queen who turns herself into a bird-like creature in order to win a reality-TV figure-skating competition. This is part of Huck's new project, "Booger Stew," a series of fifteen triptychs that he estimates will take fifteen years to complete.
Huck doesn't need much time to print one of his blocks a half-hour, maximum, most of which time he spends methodically using a brayer (like a fat, stubby rolling pin) to spread black ink across the surface of the block. Methodically is the key word here. Should even a small area of the finished print come out too light or too dark, Huck will rip it up and start again.
Because the printing process reverses whatever he has carved into his blocks, Huck must draw and then carve the mirror image of the woodcut he has envisioned. It adds an element of suspense to his work, he says. Only at the very end of several months' labor will he learn whether his original idea was a good one. Even then it takes him a month or so to get used to seeing his print in its "true" form.
But before Huck can print The Transformation of Brandy Baghead, he must use a gouge, a tool about six inches long and not much thicker than a pen, to carve the 4,500-plus square inches of the block in series of scrapes and jabs so small that you might notice the tension in his neck and shoulders before you notice the movement of his hand.
Admirers believe this is where Huck's true artistry lies. Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, who saw an exhibition of Huck's blocks alongside his prints at a Chicago gallery, says, "If you really looked at the component parts, you would be amazed at what goes into it. It's an extraordinary landscape of marks." [Editors note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.]
Kate McCrickard, director of David Krut Art Projects, the gallery that represents Huck in New York City, agrees. "For such macho works," she writes in an e-mail, "there is a real delicacy of touch."
Philip Slein is more succinct: "He draws like an angel."
Huck believes that because of this dual nature slow to carve, fast to print his work is well-suited to satire and social commentary. On one hand, when you make something to be copied or mass produced, you have a tendency to "spout off." Many of his heroes among printmakers were artists who published topical work in the newspapers: France's Honoré Daumier, Mexico's José Guadalupe Posada, or Richard Mock, whose work often appeared on the Wall Street Journal editorial page.
On the other hand, Huck says, "When you're carving blocks, there's nothing to do but think."