ST. JOHNSBURY, Vt. Degas had his ballerinas, Monet his water lilies. For Stephen Huneck, inspiration comes on four legs its teeth dug into a stick, or tugging on a piece of rope, or playing on a beach.
The eclectic Vermont folk artist, who started out whittling wooden sculptures of dogs and now specializes in dog-themed furniture, woodcut paintings and children's books, has carved out a unique niche with his whimsical reproductions of Labrador retrievers and other dogs.
And his Dog Mountain studio and dog chapel on a picturesque 175-acre hillside farm in rural northern Vermont have evolved into a kind of doggy Disneyland, drawing animal lovers and their pets from all over, and some to mourn.
To Huneck, dogs are more than man's best friend.
"I really believe they're the great spirit's special gift to mankind," said Huneck, 59. "Dogs teach us more than we teach them."
But his first lessons were tough ones.
He was bitten by a German shepherd as a toddler, terrorized by a St. Bernard on his newspaper route as a teenager and left heartbroken once when his father bought a puppy for the family but took it back to the pound the next day.
"Through it all, I just loved dogs," he said.
A longtime antique collector, the Sudbury, Mass., native turned to art professionally in the early 1980s, using old-fashioned chisels, saws and planes to handcarve his first few canine creations. Much of the basswood, cherry, maple and pine he works with comes from his farm.
His woodcuts dogs with halos, dogs peeking out from under bedcovers, dogs sniffing each other brim with the playfulness of a 6-week-old puppy. His sculptures and furniture, meanwhile, range from his Angel Dog statues a black lab with golden wings to coffee tables with sculpted legs that look like dogs, from night tables with dog-head handles to rocking dogs.
Dog lovers fairly hound him for commissioned works. His client list includes actress Sandra Bullock (a dog sculpture wedding present for her husband), Dr. Phil McGraw of TV talk show fame (a drawing of his dog) and U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, whose Washington, D.C., office is decorated with Huneck art.
"I think, to describe his work to someone who has never seen it, you simply say 'You have to see it, I can't describe it to give it the credit it deserves,'" said R. Scudder Smith, publisher of Antiques and The Arts Weekly, in Newtown, Conn. "It is too full of fun, imagination and talent to put into words."
His books, including "Sally Goes to the Beach," "Sally Goes to the Farm" and the new "Sally Gets a Job," feature woodcut prints accompanied by simple, pithy captions that celebrate man's unique relationship with dogs.
"Like a dog, he has no inhibitions," said Rob Hunter, gallery manager for Frog Hollow Vermont State Craft Center. "He goes all over the place with his work. He has tapped into that playfulness you get with a dog."
The dog chapel grew out of a bit of inspiration after his 1994 hospitalization with Adult Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which nearly killed him. When he came out of it, he says, he had a vision.
"I kept thinking what a great thing it could be, for people not only to mourn the loss of a dog but to celebrate nature and their relationships with their dogs," he said.
Using wood harvested from his own property, Huneck modeled the one-room chapel after 19th-century Vermont churches, with vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows and wooden pews.
Built at a cost of "several hundred thousand dollars" and completed in 2000, it has stained glass windows with images of dogs pieced into them.
The wooden pew-style benches in the 30-by-22 foot main room have one-dimensional dog likenesses at either end that are so realistic, Huneck says, that live dogs sniff their bottoms.
Outside, a sign welcomes all: "Welcome all creeds, all breeds. No dogmas allowed."
"I wanted the dogs to know this is their place," he says.
It's also a place for their owners many of them still grieving over their loss, years later.
The walls are covered in handwritten remembrances and photographs left by owners. It's no accident: Paper and pencils are stocked on a door near the entrance, next to the statue of Artie the angel dog, a black Labrador with golden wings.
"We came with Webster, to remember Boris," reads one. "He passed this week. He was a good dog, and we will miss him. Webster will miss him, too. But our visit today will help us all. Thanks. Cambridge, Mass."
Another: "Roxie: You you are the dog of my heart. You taught me so much about life and love. Always, N."
Another: "In memory of Rebel, our beautiful greyhound, who died when I was giving birth to my daughter, Kyra."
"I got this idea that I wanted people to be able to put up pictures of their dogs and put up a short paragraph about their dogs and that they could share that with other people and that it would always be there," said Huneck. "To my great surprise, the place is almost completely, totally full of photographs.
"It brings tears to your eyes, or you could start laughing. It's just incredible insight," he said.
Weddings and civil union ceremonies have been held in it, although whenever someone makes such a request, Huneck and his wife, Gwen, explain that the chapel has to remain open for others while the ceremony is being held.
The chapel, which is unheated and never closes, is busy and full of life in summer and fall, but quiet, empty and solemn on most winter days.
"It's just so unique," said Jennifer Goodman, 29, of Boston, who made the three-hour drive to it in January, accompanied by her boyfriend and her 7-year-old basset hound, Beans.
"My friends were like 'You're going to Vermont? Are you going to go skiing?' I'm like, 'No, we're going to a dog mountain,' and no one quite understands it. We literally just got here, checked into a hotel."
Twice a year, Huneck and his wife throw outdoor barbecues with food for everyone, two legs or four."When dogs pull up in here, they may never have been here before, but it's like they saw the 'Disneyland' sign. They just get so excited, so happy, he said.
If you go ...
DOG MOUNTAIN: 143 Parks Road, St. Johnsbury, Vt.; www.dogmt.com/about.php or 800-449-2580. Stephen Huneck's gallery and dog chapel sit side by side on a steep hill on Dog Mountain. The dog chapel is open daily, year-round; the gallery, which contains a gift shop that sells Huneck's books, sculptures and art, is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
GETTING THERE: Located about 50 miles south of the U.S.-Canadian border, just off Route 2, north of the center of St. Johnsbury.