St. Louis artist Tom Huck is not the first name to come to mind when the subject of children’s playgrounds arises. His oeuvre tends, frankly, toward the dark and the grotesque (“My work is not calculated to work with someone’s couch”), not to mention the two-dimensional.
Yet three of the Farmington native’s edgy “Evil Death Bugz” have been transformed into children’s playground equipment, soon to be available for riding at Laumeier Sculpture Park.
“I’m a satirical printmaker,” said Huck, 43. “It’s how I make my living. I needed to find a way to make a little more money, so I started making (prints of) ‘Day of the Dead’ bugs.” His work sells for up to $5,000 a print, but he priced the spiky grotesques “for $10 to $15 a pop. They sold like crazy.”
Soon after, “A friend of mine had a little too much to drink, and he drove over a kid’s spring toy, which stuck to his car. I started to think, ‘Hmm, spring toy, pretty cool.’ I thought, ‘I’d like to make a playground someday.’”
He got the chance from Laumeier, which commissioned him to make a trio of pieces from his woodcuts. That plunged Huck into a whole new world.
The hardest part, he says, was “letting go of what already existed. To see what was needed in the realm of them actually being fabricated meant seeing them in a new way, letting them live in a new way.”
The second hardest, he said, “was working with multiple parties, getting them made. I’m an artist; I go into my studio and work on what I want to do. But this was a collaboration: me, Laumeier, the fabricator, Missouri Parks and Recreation, and the engineer. It’s hard to be an artist and do it by committee.”
The word “edgy” describes the bugs’ anatomy as well as Huck’s work. How did creatures characterized by a world of pointiness get turned into children’s toys? “There aren’t a lot of sharp edges,” Huck said. “They’re fabricated of stainless steel with rounded edges.”
He paused, and added, “There’s a reason artists don’t make playground equipment. Missouri Parks and Recreation has a lot of rules. I don’t like rules.”
Huck cites a few of them: “There’s a fall zone, a height restriction, a weight restriction; there can’t be a branch over it; there can’t be anything a kid can fall on and impale his eye. The playgrounds of our youth are considered lethal now.”
The project is a change from his usual work process. “I just draw it and carve (the woodblock) and print it. It doesn’t exist in reality. No one’s going to get hurt in a print.”
The bugs are permanent installations, 2,000 pounds each. “I wanted it to be like these creatures are invading,” Huck said. “I didn’t want these pieces to look like lifelike renditions of these bugs; I wanted them to look like machines. They’re sort of like living machines from a bad future, a post-atomic future. And, of course, they’re for a child’s playground, but they’re also social satire and commentary about the state of things. I don’t want to get into that too deep.”
For all the hassle factor, Huck said, “It’s gonna be worth it. My kids (Delilah, 9, and Clementine, 6) are really excited. They’re my gauge. I carved (the bugs) in cardboard first, and they thought they were awesome. They’re a good sounding board.”
Even though it’s a children’s playground, it’s for adults, too, he emphasized. Music influences him as much as visual art: “It’s Wagnerian sort of stuff, ‘Ride of the Valkyries.’ There’s also a huge ‘Star Wars’ (element) and heavy metal. All my favorite artists were villains, living on the edge: Johnny Cash, (José Guadalupe) Posada, Caravaggio. Albrecht Dürer is the main influence on all my work. Motorhead has been a huge influence on me. I’m one big burrito of crazy, in-your-face anti-authoritarianism. I want to go somewhere between the scary and the beautiful.”
He’s energized by the experience. “I already have a million ideas for playground equipment,” he said enthusiastically. “Maybe it will be like da Vinci’s notebooks: 400 years from now, somebody will make it. Or maybe I’ll approach the City Museum. They don’t have a whole lot of rules there.”
Where • Laumeier Sculpture Park, 12580 Rott Road, Sunset Hills
How much • Free
More info • 314-615-5278; laumeiersculpturepark.org
Sarah Bryan Miller is the Post-Dispatch’s classical music critic. Follow Bryan on the Culture Club blog, and on Twitter at @SBMillerMusic.