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McCallum: Two Artists Gone

01/20/10 5:55PM By Mary McCallum
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(HOST) The passing of two renowned Vermont artists has left commentator Mary McCallum thinking about the legacies they leave behind.

(MCCALLUM) In the span of one week we lost two iconic artists from the Vermont landscape. Sandra Wright was a big hearted lady of the blues whose larger than life voice rocked us to the soles of our feet. Her packed Sunday gospel brunches were legendary, as was the volume of her voice.

Tender hearted Stephen Huneck turned his abiding love of dogs into joyful paintings, sculpture and children's books. His home and gallery in St. Johnsbury drew thousands of visitors who came to view his work and find peace in his famed Dog Chapel. One died from a brain embolism, the other by his own hand.

I only knew Huneck through his art, and with a dog crazy friend of mine planned to journey to his home on Dog Mountain this spring. When we picked up his colorful brochure at one of Vermont's tourist stops we were hooked. As dog lovers we couldn't wait to visit the chapel that he called the largest and most personal artwork of his life, and we planned to haul our mutts with us to take advantage of the dog agility course and hiking trails.

When his wife Gwen announced Huneck's tragic suicide on January 7th, art lovers and dog aficionadoes who adored his work were stunned. This gifted artist - who gave us whimsical woodcuts of dogs sledding, napping in hammocks, wearing halos and sniffing inappropriately - left us wondering and deeply sobered. He had defied death by returning from a mysterious illness and coma in 1994, and the first woodcut print he did while healing showed his black lab Sally, with the message "Life is a Ball."

A week later Sandra Wright died, leaving Vermont very much quieter.  I was fortunate to know her, and was sometimes there listening to her belt out rock, rhythm and blues in small clubs. Her big voice and even bigger heart made their mark in the state, raising money to benefit causes from head trauma victims to pre-schoolers. In 2004 she agreed to come to the prison where I teach and sing Amazing Grace for the inmates on Martin Luther King Day. For free. All I had to do was go shovel her snow-blocked path and drive her in my car to the prison. And they loved her.

When she was in her fifties I asked Sandra how long she thought she'd keep on performing her high powered songs of love, heartache and faith. "As long as I have a voice, even if they have to Velcro the mike to my hand," she replied.

I never had the chance to ask Stephen Huneck how long he planned to paint, carve and write, but I suspect that if things were different, he would have replied in similar fashion.

Two outstanding Vermont artists, both just over sixty, and with a lot more to give, are gone, proving the fragility of life. But when I feel heavy hearted over it, I step back and picture Sandra up in the clouds gripping that mike and singing her heart out, while Stephen throws balls to his angel dogs in a never ending game of fetch.
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