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Local painter leaps onto wine scene

One of the frog paintings by artist Chuck Houck will be featured on a label for a California wine. Houck owns Angel Gallery in Coeur d'Alene. 
 (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
One of the frog paintings by artist Chuck Houck will be featured on a label for a California wine. Houck owns Angel Gallery in Coeur d'Alene. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

Chuck Houck retired last September after 35 years working for Idaho Forest Industries. Now he’s got time to devote to one of his first loves – painting. Houck sold his first painting at age 9. Now, the local artist – who is best known for his whimsical and colorful “Frog Art” – is about to gain rapid exposure. One of his paintings, “Sally,” is featured on the label of two different varieties of wine by JepsonVineyards of Ukiah, Calif., in Mendocino County.

Sally is a red-eyed tree-frog, a species indigenous to Costa Rica. Sally was also one of Houck’s pets.

Originally from Troy, Mont., Houck’s father was a logger, which required the family to move where the work was. He ended up graduating from high school in Ukiah, Calif., approximately two hours north of San Francisco. The area has exceptionally good weather for viticulture, enjoying warm, sunny days and cool, foggy nights.

“They really grow great grapes,” Houck said. “Everybody wants their grapes.”

In February, Houck and his business partner in Bright Eyes Publishing, Pat Kovatch, were attending a trade show in San Francisco. Their company makes greeting cards featuring Houck’s art as well as the creations of local artist, Terry Lee. Lee told Houck he had great color eight years ago, and Houck considers Lee his best friend in the art community. Kovatch writes the greetings, and a third partner, Joseph Sharnesky, does their printing.

Houck decided to visit an uncle in Ukiah since he was in the area. On the way back, he could envision his art on a wine label.

“I said, I’m going to stop at the next winery,” Houck said.

He stopped at Jepson, where Sean Flynn, the tasting room manager, loved the idea. He agreed that “Sally” would make an awesome wine label. Houck sold them on the idea.

Houck and Kovatch came home and the wheels started turning. They started communicating with the wine maker, Alison Schneider. Jepson is producing 500 cases of a Viognier-based white-blend, and 500 cases of a Syrah-based red-blend. This amounts to 80,000 labels, since Houck has designed the back label, too. His name will be on the label along with his signature.

“Chuck’s great!” Schneider said. “We’re all doing this because he came in and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this.’ “

Houck admits he’s a good salesman with his art. A T-shirt is in the works now, featuring a new painting of a frog sitting on top of a street sign that says “Coeur d’Alene.”

Kovatch is also co-owner of the new Angel Gallery of Fine Arts and Antiques, at Fifth and Sherman. Houck’s work is prominently displayed in the gallery. In conjunction with the next art walk, July 9, Angel Gallery will have its grand-opening, and Houck’s art will fill one room.

Houck does have some of his art printed, but in the case of “Sally,” Jepson has purchased the original, and owns the rights to it, so it will not be printed. It will be on display at the winery. Houck plans to hand-deliver the painting to Ukiah.

Houck paints other subjects, but is passionate about frogs. A large original such as “Frogs and Orchids,” which is on display now at Angel Gallery, is priced at $3,456, but a small one-foot square print can be purchased for $99. The pride in his work is such that he even goes over his prints and brush-strokes much of the print.

“I believe that the person buying my work should have a little bit of me,” Houck said.

He works out of his studio in Rathdrum, and this summer his 11-year old grandson, Chris Schwartz, is his protégé and assistant. Houck already has Chris painting and learning about balance, proportion and shape. Chris finished his first painting Thursday, following in granddad’s shoes.

Houck is working on getting a local distributor for the wine, but it can always be ordered from Jepson Vineyards. He hopes to have a few bottles available at the July 9 opening at Angel Gallery.

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