I asked my friend, printmaking Prof. Evan Summer, to recommend the best woodblock teacher in America. He answered, “Tom Huck, heh, heh.”
So I emailed Mr.Tom Huck in St. Louis, Missouri. He told me I was welcome to study at his print shop for a week in July. He calls his summer class ‘Evil Bootcamp‘ and warned me that I would have to sleep on the print shop floor. I asked for an invoice in advance, thinking my employer, Kutztown University, might pay for the course. The invoice was simple and direct,“Please Remit $666 -Payable to Evil Prints.” I was once a substitute member of the KU Faculty Professional Development Committee, so I knew this invoice might raise eyebrows given the current economic crisis. My wife suggested I send Tom Huck eight dollars cash and submit a less evil invoice of 558. I decided it would be far easier to just pay the 666 myself.
When I arrived in St. Louis, I took the light rail from the airport. Den Mother Alicia picked me up at the train station and drove me to Evil Prints. They were having an open house. Tom Huck, covered in tattoos, looked like a bouncer at a biker bar. He was schmoozing with a family that had brought their little kids to meet the legend. What were they thinking? Dehydrated from my red-eye flight from Allentown, I wanted a drink of water before I introduced myself. I found the water fountain, but it was broken. A.J. Lovell, Huck’s master printer, offered me a bottle of beer. It was around noon. Turns out Pabst Blue Ribbon is the official drink of Evil Prints. Unlimited free beer for the week made up for the fact the water fountain never got fixed.
Tom Huck shook my hand and said, “I’m Huck!” I was carrying a little Flip video camera so I asked, “Huck, is it alright if…?” That’s as far my question got. “You can do whatever the F’ you want!” I was reminded of the early 20th century British Satanist, Aleister Crowley, whose golden rule was, “Do what thou wilt is the whole of the law.” Huck’s statement was a succinct update of Crowley’s law. Oddly enough, Huck’s largest printing press, a temperamental monster of a machine, is named “Mr. Crowley.”
The Illustrated Man
“Tom Huck is certainly the best artist working in woodblock today. The fact that he’s from Missouri and working in St. Louis makes his work all the more interesting to us,” says Sherry Leedy. Her Contemporary Art Gallery hosts an online exhibition of Huck’s masterworks, including the amazing Brandy Baghead triptych.
His woodblock prints are among the largest I’ve ever seen. The subject matter leans toward satire, sometimes savage, sometimes personal and oddly touching. This year he is carving a triptych based on his first fleeting glimpse of a woman’s breasts. This memorable event occurred by chance when Huck was a little boy snorkeling in the Potosi, Missouri, town pool. It was June 15, 1984. A teenage girl dived in. Thinking there was nobody else in the pool she slowly adjusted the top of her bathing suit, exposing her breasts, and became Huck’s muse. A lot of artists can talk a good story. Clearly, Huck has perfected his oral storytelling technique and he has also mastered the skills needed to retell his tales in graphic form. A triptych, three large prints, by Tom Huck sells for $12,500. His artwork is housed in the foremost print collections in the world, both private and public, including the Whitney Museum of Art and Harvard’s Fogg Museum.
Huck doesn’t need PowerPoint to teach; he’s got six centuries of woodblock history inked on his skin. The “1471″ tattooed across the knuckles of his left hand signifies the birth year of the German master, Albrecht Durer. Huck was born in Missouri in 1971, exactly 500 years after his hero’s birth. Huck clearly believes in the magic of numbers.
I met my fellow students, a talented group of artists; there were 13 of us. Most had undergrad degrees in printmaking. A few were in grad school. Some had traveled from as far as Fresno. That first night, Huck gave an amazing stem-winder of an orientation speech. It began with, “Rule # 1, NO FIREARMS.” He shared the story of “the incident with the Glock,” how a gun-toting printmaker, high on Mountain Dew, nearly ended last year’s camp on day one. Basically he said, “You’re in Huck’s World now.” I jotted down some of the many colorful ways he said it, “Don’t think you can F’ with Huck; I’ve got a lawyer with umlauts,” and, “If you are so much as rude to one of your classmates, I will cut you up into little pieces and ship you slow post to your Momma.”
Sleeping arrangements were first-come, first-served. The leather couch and the Persian carpet were taken long before I arrived. Originally, I positioned my yard-sale exercise mat near the door of the Betty Page Memorial bathroom. That bathroom, tastefully decorated with classic soft-core porn got a lot of foot traffic at night, so I moved to a spot underneath a printing press. Not the big press, Mr. Crowley. I slept beneath Snaggletooth. I tested the ergonomics, and found I was just able to sit bolt upright without smacking my head on the press’s steel underside. Later in the week when there was some projectile vomiting, I would be happy to have this sheltered spot.
The day before before I flew to St.Louis I got an email from Evil HQ telling me to “pack a bathing suit.” Missouri was having a heatwave. Great, I thought, maybe there will be a pool, or evil field trip to the Lake in the Ozarks. Turns out, I needed the bathing suit because there are no showers at Evil Prints. They do have a sorry little pool, a shin-deep plastic kiddie toy smack in the middle of the glass-strewn parking lot. Twice weekly, I stepped into the pool and Den Mother Alicia hosed me and the rest of the guys down without getting her cigar wet. Oddly enough, we were segregated by gender at shower time. Female campers were hosed down by a male, A.J. Lovell. Across the parking lot, the night crew on the loading dock of Industrial Soap Co. roared with delight and asked Lovell about his job description. Evil Prints is in a fairly tough neighborhood. After our Tuesday night hose down, someone with a knife stole the ten feet of hose left dangling from Evil Prints’ second story window.
The cuisine was as remarkable as the accommodations. Along with the beer there was unlimited microwaveable Kraft Mac & Cheese. One night Lovell cooked up his famous Texas chili. Someone asked if there would be a vegetarian version. Lovell patiently explained that there is “no such thing as vegetarian Texas chili.” He further explained that he had grown up working cows in McAllen, Texas, and swore “cows are dumber than soy beans.” According to Lovell, if one “really cares about life and cosmic justice, let the soybeans live and eat the damned cows!” I bought into his Texas logic and tried the chili; it was much tastier than the Mac & Cheese I’d had for breakfast.
Huck has a BFA and an MFA, but at this point in time his relationship with academia is, let’s say, stormy. Until last year he was a tenured professor of art at Washington University. He sometimes begins lessons with, “This is the gospel according to Evil Prints, not Toenail State.” One often hears the question, “What does it take to get fired from a tenured university position?” I don’t know the answer, but Huck does. Huck, who chats openly about his musings on his parents’ sex life, declines to speak about his departure from WU.
I learned there is one other taboo at Evil Prints. I overheard Lovell talking to a camper named Marco, “Don’t ever let Huck here you say that word! He’ll go ballistic.” Later I asked Marco, what word? RECYCLING! Turns out Marco had asked about recycling the PBR bottles. Lovell explained in whispers, since Huck pays good money for a dumpster, he wants it full every week, and beer bottles are made in factories in America. So by throwing bottles away, Huck is saving American jobs.
Huck proved to be a generous and knowledgeable teacher. He demonstrated how to sharpen carving tools. He demonstrated his laborious cross-hatch woodcarving technique. He is happy if he gets a section the size of his hand carved in a full day. We learned how to pick decent plywood, even at a big box stores. From Lovell we learned which sort of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard) is safe to carve as an alternative to wood. (Most MDF has noxious formaldehyde, but there is a formaldehyde-free brand, called Trupan, worth asking for.)
Huck believes in self-promotion for artists, “If Durer were alive today, he’d be doing skateboards! Max Beckman would be doing stickers! You’ve got to promote yourself up the public’s ass!” Huck has stickers, postcards, girlie calendars, liquor tastings, milk and cookie nights, occasionally strippers, and a full line of clothing down to Brandy Baghead panties. His latest scheme is the Evil Prints Bug-of-the-Month Club. For $100 you get 12 hand signed prints, plus a T-shirt and a ticket for the lottery for a chance to win one of Huck’s large scale prints like the one at the Whitney Museum. “Artists, even some printmakers, hate my guts for selling stuff so cheap,” he says with a diabolical giggle.
For me, the most mysterious thing about Huck is how beautiful women are attracted to him. Sleeping beneath the tempered steel press, the acoustics were such that I could hear conversations in all corners of the studio. One lovely young camper wanted to audition for his girlie calendar. Another young lady pleaded with Huck to let her come live at the studio. “All my stuff is in storage,” she said. “I’ll come back and sleep on the floor.” He told her emphatically no. She sounded frantic, and said he didn’t understand, that her home city was boring. Huck shouted her down, telling her, “I’ve got news for you! Everyplace is F’ing boring. St. Louis would be boring, if I let it. You’ve got to make your own excitement!” That Huckism might be the best advice for aspiring artists anywhere.
Huck is not a large man, but he is certainly larger than life. During my week with him I asked myself, “Is this guy nuts? Is he kidding? Is his whole life one ultimate long-form improv?” The more I thought about it, I realized these are elemental philosophical questions I should ask about myself. It is, however, generally, far easier to ask these sorts of questions about others, and particularly, about Huck. Tom Huck is a master showman. He has cast himself center stage as the misfit, an outlaw, an artist. I came away convinced that Tom Huck is not easily labeled, but he is authentic. And he can do whatever ever the F’ he wants!