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Evil Ink 

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

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.

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." [Editor’s 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."

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.

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.

"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."

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 London depicting 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.

But once he graduated, Huck says, "This stuff just exploded out."

Over the next three years, holed up first in his parents' house in Potosi and then in a small apartment in Columbia, trying to support himself and his first wife with adjunct teaching jobs, Huck produced "2 Weeks in August."

"When you don't have a paycheck, it really goes into the work," he says. "You don't have a choice but to become good at it. I could teach at Jefferson Community College, work at a gas station or go to jail — those were my choices. Or I could be a printmaker."

As Huck's career began to take off, his marriage collapsed. He and his first wife divorced in 2002. (He declines to go into details, other than to say the two haven't spoken in six years.) He admits that he went off the rails after the divorce, drinking heavily and hanging out in strip clubs. He credits this time with fueling the darker, more obsessively detailed prints in "The Bloody Bucket" suite.

Though he has restricted his goings-out to a weekly visit to Blueberry Hill, Huck still has an affinity for the wild side. He has left instructions that when he dies, his remains are to be cremated and scattered on the east side on mud-wrestling night.

Huck is relieved when the National Honor Society ceremony ends, though he can't quite get over the religious overtones. He doesn't recall anything like that when he was a student at Potosi High, he says.

After a brief appearance at the cookies-and-punch reception, we stop in at his parents' house before heading back to St. Louis. By the time we get back on the road it's nearly eleven. Just past the commercial area of Hillsboro along Highway 21, flashing lights appear behind us.

We pull onto the shoulder. Oddly, the officer who climbs out of a Hillsboro squad car approaches the passenger side of the car. Shining his flashlight inside, he informs me that I was going 56 in a 40-mile-an-hour zone and asks for my ID and proof of insurance.

Then he asks for Huck's ID and heads back to his cruiser.

A short while later, the officer returns with my papers and a speeding citation. I ask whether he has Huck's ID. He still has that, he says tersely, and leaves once more.

Another Hillsboro squad car arrives, then one more. At last the officer approaches the passenger side again and instructs Huck to step out of the vehicle.

I watch as Huck is handcuffed, then follow as he is transported to Hillsboro police headquarters to be booked on a bench warrant involving a traffic stop in Clayton. He is detained for two hours before being permitted to post bond. (The Clayton case, a violation for failure to show proof of insurance, will later be dismissed.)

"Typical — small-town cops with very little to do. I come to expect these things now," Huck says as we finally put Potosi behind us.

Increasingly, Huck is putting Potosi in his own rearview mirror. Not only are his works getting bigger — The Transformation of Brandy Baghead is by far the largest woodcut he has ever undertaken — they're also getting broader.

"You'll see him shifting away from just making fun of hillbillies to broader, bigger things as he begins maturing more," his friend Phil Slein predicts. "I think Huck pretty much owns St. Louis. I don't think he's fully matured as an artist. That's how much growth is left in him. I think he's going to get more attention in New York."

Responding via e-mail, Huck's New York representative, Kate McCrickard, sounds a more cautious note. Though she says his chosen medium "suits his renegade vision really quite well," she notes that printmaking's lower price tag too often translates to lower prestige among collectors.

Carmon Colangelo, Huck's boss at Washington U. and a printmaker himself, agrees. But, Colangelo adds, "What's interesting is that printmakers are on the margin, looking into the center. They can kind of mimic and make fun of the art world at the same time."

In the near term, Huck seems most excited about the possibilities afforded by the new press he acquired for Evil Prints. Custom-built by Warren Sauer of Sauer Custom Machines in Kirkwood, it's pimped out with Evil Prints' black-and-red color scheme and decorated with decals of 1940s pin-up models. Atop one of the hand cranks is a metal skeleton with eyes that glow bright red. "This press changed my life," Huck says. "It's a dream come true."

Huck produces his prints in limited editions of twelve to fifteen, priced at about $3,000 apiece — and he usually can't carve more than one or two blocks a year. So the press promises a vital source of income. Huck envisions Evil Prints as a print shop like Landfall Press in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There well-known artists print special editions of their work, which Landfall then sells. It won't exactly be lucrative, but combined with his teaching gig it should pay the bills. (Huck married Anne Treeger, an artist and educator, in 2005; the couple and their infant daughter live in south St. Louis not far from Carondelet Park.)

Even if his success were to vanish, Huck says, he'd keep carving his blocks. "I'd be living in my parents' basement, making woodcuts," he says. For now he sets himself a little goal each day to get through the more than 4,500 square inches that stand between a raw slab of Maine birch plywood and The Transformation of Brandy Baghead.

After all, Huck says, "This is all a goddamn miracle to begin with."

Correction published 3/15/07: In the original version of this story, we we quoted Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, commenting on a show of Huck's work at the Art Institute of Chicago. Pascale informs us that the exhibition was mounted at the Aron Packer Gallery in Chicago. The above version reflects this correction.

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