Evil Ink

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

"He was always interested in art," says Huck's father, James, a chiropractor and bluegrass musician who built a recording studio in the basement of their home.

Huck's main concern as a child and adolescent was drawing things as realistically as possible. He remembers sitting with his grandfather, who had wanted to become a commercial artist but found his ambitions interrupted by his service in World War II, copying images from TV Guide covers.

But not until Huck was a student at SIU did he study printmaking formally. He jokes now that the only reason he signed up for printmaking was because the printmaking majors threw the best parties. Or partly jokes. Surveying the varied activity in the printmaking class he teaches now at Washington University, he says, "This is why I got into printmaking: people bullshitting, hanging out, helping each other print."

"This shit fights you": Huck carves 4,500 square inches of Maine birch plywood, using a tool not much thicker than a pencil.
Jennifer Silverberg
"This shit fights you": Huck carves 4,500 square inches of Maine birch plywood, using a tool not much thicker than a pencil.
Tom Huck (with wife Anne Treeger-Huck and daughter Delilah) deems his success a "goddamn miracle."
Jennifer Silverberg
Tom Huck (with wife Anne Treeger-Huck and daughter Delilah) deems his success a "goddamn miracle."

Looking back, though, Huck can identify the events that foreordained his path as an artist and satirist. Rooting through his father's stuff for issues of Playboy when he was thirteen, he found a magazine containing a reproduction of George Cruikshank's illustration from William Harrison Ainsworth's Tower of Londondepicting the execution of Lady Jane Grey. The mix of energy and horror — the figures frozen in the instant before the axe falls and the executioner's grotesque, inhuman expression — captured Huck's imagination. Among his father's belongings, Huck also dug out an issue of Robert Crumb's Big Ass Comics. Again the connection was immediate. In fact, Huck says he wrote Crumb one fan letter a year until he was in his early twenties. Crumb never responded, but through a mutual friend Huck arranged to visit Sauve, France, where Crumb lives.

His voice trembles with excitement as he recalls Crumb asking to see his sketchbook. After thumbing through the pages, the comic-book master declared, "Well, Huck, looks like you've got this crosshatching thing down."

"It was the best compliment I've ever received," Huck says.

Huck also recalls a family trip to Washington, D.C., where he found his most immediate connection to printmaking. Given $20 to spend in the National Gallery's gift shop, he chose a softcover collection of Albrecht Dürer prints. Huck didn't know what a woodcut was, but he knew this was the work — finely detailed, telling a vivid, sometimes violent story — he wanted to be doing. Today Huck points to Dürer, Crumb and the musician and eminent satirist Frank Zappa as the holy trinity of his influences.

As a thirteen-year-old in Potosi, however, he knew only that his interest in art made him different — a sense that grew after his paternal grandparents took him on a two-week trip to Europe. Besides serving as an altar boy in a mass led by Pope John Paul II, Huck was exposed to art and culture on a scale he'd never imagined.

"I was different, coming back," Huck says. "Potosi was so little." Not long after Tom Huck completed "2 Weeks in August," he loaded a few sets of his first suite of prints into the trunk of his Cadillac — "a $500 car; the horn honked whenever you turned left," he says — and drove from St. Louis to the Fogg Art Museum, widely regarded as owning the best print collection of any museum in the United States.

He walked into the print department and introduced himself — "I'm Huck, I make prints," he recounts with an exaggerated drawl — and an assistant went to find Marjorie B. Cohn, the Carl A. Weyerhaeuser Curator of Prints.

Cohn looked over "2 Weeks in August" and promptly purchased the suite for $2,500.

Huck's work is "a breath of fresh, fetid air," Cohn writes in an e-mail. The curator, who has since retired, cites the artist's "strong technique harnessed to a runaway pictorial imagination."

It was the first of many such cold calls Huck embarked upon at the start of his career. In fact, after leaving the Fogg Art Museum, he drove to New York City and sold work to the New York Public Library, widely regarded as owning the nation's second-best print collection.

The cold calls weren't always successful, but Huck was gaining confidence. The Art Institute of Chicago's Mark Pascale remembers meeting him for the first time: "He blew into the department like a tornado, and he scared me with the volume of his voice."

Adds Pascale: "I had no idea who he was."

Huck points to the late printmaker Richard Mock as an example of the sort of work ethic he tries to match.

"He was the real deal," Huck says. "He got his stuff in the newspapers. [But] he lived in just the smallest apartment, with his [print] blocks stacked up high. Seeing that when I was 25 was when I needed to see it: He's barely surviving on his guts and his work. And that's in the work."

Huck earned his Master of Fine Arts degree from Washington University in 1995. At the time there was little to suggest his future success, let alone that it would come sooner rather than later. At one point during his final year, he was struggling so badly that when he was called on to present work for a critique, he chose to display nothing.

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