In St. Louis, Tom Huck's Evil Prints Are Good, Good, Good

Printmaker Tom Huck operates out of a storefront studio where you can drop in and buy a piece of art history.

You might think that an artist with the Mark Twain-ish name of Tom Huck might turn out more or less wholesome scenes populated with characters from a bygone middle America. Well, they're characters all right, from middle America, too; they are anything but wholesome, richly deserving of the moniker the artist has applied to his prolific enterprise: Evil Prints.

Sign on the window at 1931 Washington Ave.

Huck calls his imagery "rural satire," a rather tame spin on the violent, scatological, sexual, grotesque, fantastic, funny and sensationally compelling visions he carves into giant slabs of plywood for his roiling, eccentric, unmistakable woodcuts on which there is not a single place for the eye to rest. The ebullient, approachable 44-year-old artist, whose work was collected by museums right out of college, still lives in a small Missouri town of the type that fuels his fevered imagination, but he works out of a storefront studio in St. Louis (1931 Washington Ave.) where collectors, fans, groupies, aspiring artists and anyone else can drop in (M-F noon-5pm, Sa 10am-5pm) and buy a print, a T-shirt or some other limited-edition novelty (for anywhere from $15 to $4,500) and maybe watch his team of assistants pull one of his spectacular compositions from the massive press built especially for him.

Studio assistants Ashley Pryor and Cameron Gray pull a proof from a mid-sized block. (D. Lancaster)

Arguably St. Louis' most collectible artist, Huck has earned a richly deserved reputation as an uncompromising printmaker and singular visionary in the grand tradition of Albrecht Dürer (a personal hero), Pieter Bruegel, Jose Guadalupe Posada, Francisco Goya and Honoré Daumier, a lineage that informs and inspires (you could say haunts) his every waking moment. That reputation (and its astonishing reality) has gained his work entrance into prestigious public and private collections, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Spencer Museum of Art, Fogg Art Museum, New York Public Library and Saint Louis Art Museum, which mounted a 2009 exhibit entitled "Tom Huck and the Rebellious Tradition of Printmaking" featuring Huck's work alongside prints by Dürer, Hogarth, Posada and Beckmann gleefully chosen by the artist from the museum's formidable collection. Huck recently completed a sculptural project for Laumeier Sculpture Park based on his prints of insects. Something of a living legend in printmaking circles, Huck actually has an ink named after him by the artist paint manufacturer Gamblin: Tom Huck's Outlaw Black.

A can of Tom Huck's Outlaw Black

Huck's largest pieces are pulled from 4 x 8-foot sheets of plywood, the compositions for which take months to develop; the carving even longer. In woodblock prints, tonal values are generated by a series of fine lines, sometimes cross-hatched and often curved in sympathy with the form they are depicting. The lines are created by cutting and removing the wood around them in an unrelentingly painstaking process that calls for an extraordinary level of sustained concentration and allows no mistakes. What happens if he makes a mistake? "I don't," Huck insists.

Huck at work on his latest composition; the red parts get carved away

Happily, Huck is passing on his expertise, passion and commitment to a new generation of artists, something he tried briefly as an art instructor at Washington University in St. Louis, where he taught after earning his MFA in printmaking but found he couldn't reconcile the demands of teaching with the demands of his own work. At Evil Prints, he maintains a staff of six assistants, recent college graduates, who commit to working in his studio for three years turning out his prints and, importantly, theirs. It's a shop squarely in the tradition of his art history heroes, a determinedly low-tech rarity in today's art world that (since he no longer has a gallery affiliation) casts him the multiple roles of "artist, printer, publisher and marketer." Just like Dürer.

Prints for sale from the flat files

And the work keeps coming. Eschewing commissions, Huck is busy bringing his unique and seemingly inexhaustible vision into reality, cut by painstaking cut. Huck could easily coax 75 impressions from each of his blocks, but he keeps editions down to 25, most of which are eagerly snapped up by museums and collectors. He even has a ready market for the used woodblocks, bought by collectors who appreciate them as "sculptural objects." And there are smaller pieces as well. "It bothered me when kids who liked my work couldn't afford it, so I decided to have work available at a wide range of price points. Almost everybody who comes in here at least buys a T-shirt." Do drop in and watch art history in progress; you might also take a piece of it home.