Evil Ink

A lust for the grotesque and a thirst for the jugular: the mad mind of printmaker Tom Huck

Huck's thoughts tend to be hyperactive and wandering. This summer he visited the Field Museum in Chicago to view the King Tutankhamen exhibition. The sight of a boy wearing a replica of King Tut's headdress got him thinking about what he calls "the overcommodification of culture."

"I'm really freaked out by big promotional things done by fast-food chains," Huck says.

In his sketchbook, though, Huck drew neither King Tut nor a fast-food chain but Boy Scouts visiting a crucifixion-themed amusement park.

James and Janet Huck encouraged their son's art — even 
after young Tom was banned from high school art classes 
on the first day of ninth grade.
Jennifer Silverberg
James and Janet Huck encouraged their son's art — even after young Tom was banned from high school art classes on the first day of ninth grade.
Death of a Sailor, from "The Bloody Bucket" (woodcut, 38" x 52", 2001).
Tom Huck
Death of a Sailor, from "The Bloody Bucket" (woodcut, 38" x 52", 2001).

Sometimes his inspiration is more prosaic. He's fascinated by the "Sodom and Gomorrah that goes on" in the Lake of the Ozarks, and in his studio there's a copy of the Lake Bar Review, a publication filled with ads for floating bars filled with bikini-clad women. Rubbing his hands together and cackling like the mad mastermind in a James Bond spoof, he talks about a "field trip" to see another potential subject firsthand: Branson.

For the most part, though, Huck takes his satire seriously. "If you're a satirist," he says, "you kind of have to pick a side."

In his two major suites of prints, "2 Weeks in August: 14 Rural Absurdities" and "The Bloody Bucket," Huck sides against the "small-mindedness" that characterized his growing up in Potosi.

"[Small-mindedness] is the one thing that I cannot tolerate in this world," he says. "There's nothing more evil than that. When you want to do art in a very rural area, first of all everyone will think you're gay or something, which isn't a bad thing now, but, man, when you're in high school and [haven't] been exposed to the bigger world, that's hard to go through."

Both "2 Weeks in August" and "The Bloody Bucket" expose the hypocrisy of that small-mindedness by revealing ridiculous and depraved stories from Potosi's past. Huck claims the stories in "2 Weeks in August" are true. He saw Martha of Martha and the Greased Pig this past year at the Washington County State Fair. Fried Eggs and Arson is based on a Potosi family whose egg-processing plant burned to the ground on a regular basis. People would head outside with lawn chairs and beer and "watch the shit burn," Huck says. "The town smelled like fried eggs for weeks."

"The Bloody Bucket" is based on stories Huck heard about the bar of the same name, a favorite of World War II veterans during its brief (1948-'51) existence. The scale of these prints is larger than Huck's earlier work, the details finer. In Death of a Sailor — more or less typical of the suite as a whole — the central action is the brutal killing of a man in a sailor's uniform. His killer, wearing a lecherous grin and the sailor's hat, holds a rope tied around his victim's neck in one hand, a pair of garden shears in the other. A dog is yanking out the sailor's tongue with a coat hanger.

It's a chilling image, and all the more so when you consider the composition (the sailor, his murderer and the dog form a triangle) and the details — the rivulets of urine running down the sailor's bare leg (how did he lose his pants, anyway?) and the other murder taking place in the print's upper left corner, as casual as a shrug.

Some Potosi residents have objected to Huck's portrayal of the town. After the St. Louis Post-Dispatch published a profile last January, a discussion thread was posted on a Washington County Internet message board. Huck says he relished the complaints. (The message board doesn't archive material.)

Potosi High's Jerry Richards says much of the "so-called controversy," as he refers to it, arises from "people who are not open to going different from what the [Potosi] norm is."

Many Potosi residents don't understand Huck's art, Richards says. "I think most of the problems he's run into down here is ignorance."

Huck makes no apologies for the product of his hillbilly muse: "People should behave," he says. "Don't do bad shit, you won't end up in my prints."


When Tom Huck left art class on his first day at Potosi High School, it was for good.

"Everybody had talked about me getting into high school art," Huck says. "'Wait till this Huck boy comes up. You should see his work and what he can do.' The first day was freakin' color wheels! I mouthed off to [my teacher] and said I don't want to do this, my sister's doing it, and she's in second grade.

"He marched me down to the office and basically said, 'I don't want this Huck kid in any of my classes ever again.' That was it. I had study hall for four years. It was misery."

Fortunately for Huck, his parents always supported his art. In middle school they converted a room of their house into an art studio for him. After his expulsion from high school art class, his mother, Janet, enrolled him in art classes at Mineral Area College in Park Hills, Missouri. He studied art there throughout high school, earning enough college credits that he was able to graduate from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale in three years.

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