The Dog Chapel and Bug Art
St. Johnsbury, Vermont
The roads around St. Johnsbury are filled with SUVs and Subaru wagons, and nearly all of them have kayaks or canoes or mountain bikes clamped to their roof racks. This picturesque but out-of-the-way place -- dubbed "The Northeast Kingdom" by a dead politician -- is a magnet for tree-huggers.
For us, the only reason to come all the way up here are two artists, Stephen Huneck and John Hampson, and their animal muses, dogs and bugs. Both men are similar, but they encountered very different fates.
Stephen Huneck was lucky. He may not have felt that way when he "died" from Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome in 1998, but he did not stay dead. Upon recovery, he vowed to have a chapel built -- one where any creature could come and feel welcome. It was no surprise that he chose dogs as his design theme, since Huneck was already a successful artist and illustrator of playful dog prints and dog rugs and dog books.
The oddball Dog Chapel helped thrust Huneck into some very deep clover. In the tradition of Sam Butcher's Precious Moments Chapel, it is a monument to one's own creativity and commerce.
Opened in 1999, the Dog Chapel sits on a flower-speckled hillside -- Dog Mountain -- next to a large gift shop/gallery where one can purchase Stephen Huneck prints ($85 and up) and rugs ($150 and up) and furniture ($750 and up) and copies of his The Dog Chapel book ($24.95).
Around Dog Mountain are a scattering of sculptures -- canine heads mounted on pillars, a business-suited guy walking his dog, and other art objects. The nondenominational Chapel resembles an early19th century white clapboard church, save for the winged dog mounted on the steeple. Inside it is sparse but pleasant, seats a dozen or so, and is a work of art rather than a place of worship.
Its stained glass windows -- variations of Huneck prints of dogs mooching ice cream and other cute antics -- are its decorative highlight. But the public can participate as well; the walls of the Chapel's foyer are covered with photos of dead pets, thumbtacked in place along with messages from mourning owners written on index cards. Most are warm remembrances, with the occasional terse declaration ("She had kidney stones.").
Huneck is popular with the locals; five of the six cars in the parking lot were Subaru wagons with roof racks and VT plates.
A five minute drive west on Highway 2 -- past the big Maple Syrup Can -- takes you into downtown St. Johnsbury. Here you'll find the Fairbanks Museum, a fun Victorian era throwback of stuffed dead animals and of labeled things in jars and glass cases. Here, too, are the works of the Northeast Kingdom's other animal artist, John Hampson.
We asked the woman at the busy ticket counter, tactfully, where the "insect portraits" were. She seemed to mentally process our words for a moment. "Oh. You mean BUG ART? Second floor, between the samurai warrior and the Indian pots."
John Hampson was not beloved like Stephen Huneck. His medium was bugs. Using pins and glue, he painstakingly arranged dead bugs and bug body parts -- butterflies, moths, beetles -- into patterns and pictures that could be hung on a wall.
Each of his works used between 6,000 and 13,000 bugs and took 3-4 years to complete. His designs ranged from a radiant star to a rippling American flag, from portraits of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and World War I general John Pershing, to one celebrating his own 50th birthday.
Hampson created his bug art in Newark, New Jersey -- no rolling hillside of wildflowers, no parking lot, no gift shop. He liked to tinker with machinery and inventions, and once worked for Thomas Edison, designing an early phonograph. But the whole bug art thing -- he apparently kept a low profile and didn't spend a single day in the nuthouse. When he died -- unlike Huneck, he didn't come back -- his daughter searched the country for a museum that would exhibit his art. The Fairbanks Museum was the only taker, which is how the entire collection ended up up here.
The portraits are preserved behind glass, protected from humidity and bright light. Our photos don't really capture the delicate interweaving of wings and metallic sheen of beetle carapace. You must see for yourself.
John Hampson had the misfortune of being born a hundred years too soon. If he had lived in the early 21st century, rather than in the early 20th, he might have built his own chapel on a "Bug Mountain" and ended up respected and beloved like Mr. Whimsical Dog Art down the road.
The Dog Chapel and Bug Art offer an instructive lesson in the fickleness of fame and timing, and we urge a visit to both. We also urge the Fairbanks Museum, opened in 1891, to use the money from our admission tickets to buy more light bulbs.
Update: Stephen Huneck, 61, died in Feb. 2010 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. According to the NY times obit, Huneck's wife said "he had been despondent over having had to lay off most of the employees of his art business that week."