The Gallery at UNOS' entrance announces the exhibition running through Oct. 29. (Photo by Jennifer Simmons)
The Galleries at the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) on Friday opened to much Happy-ness. “Because I’m Happy” includes three generations of the Kuhn family, led by paterfamilias John Patrick “Happy” Kuhn, who for a long while hereabouts has been known as Happy the Artist. Because, well, doesn’t everybody want to be Happy?
The exhibition, up until Oct. 29, includes some 18 pieces in addition to prints by Happy, who is approaching the 75th anniversary of his nativity. It's his first gallery exhibition in decades, although he's made murals and art throughout the city, the state and across the country. He's worked like his life depended on it — because it did.
"I have five great-grandchildren, four grandchildren and two wonderful ex-wives,” he says. Happy also has eight children, and, of them, two of his working artist sons are in the show, Max and Chance. Also represented is Happy's late sculptor/painter father, Robert E. Kuhn, (you can see more here) and Happy’s younger brother Nathan. He's got a massive wooden paint set on display. Chance’s wife, Annemarie Misik, is a designer and painter.
Chance, 33, is a musician, textile painter of sacred geometry and muralist. Max, 26, travels the country and Europe as a tattoo artist.
Happy grew up with the smell of turpentine and linseed oil from his father’s studio. He was successful as a metalsmith, woodworker and painter. “And then I have these kids who are modeling being on the roller coaster ride of self-employed artists. They learned to live with a tight belt because sometimes there’s plenty of money and other times there’s not much.”
Happy underwent heart surgery when still a youngster, and his daughter, Happyanne All the Saints, a teacher and artist, died of cancer at age 25 in 2005. Her name lives on in friend Lily Lamberta’s All The Saints Puppet Theater.
“I’ve known the inside of hospitals,” he says. “And I’ve had my donor card filled out for years.” Twenty percent of any sales from the exhibition go to UNOS.
Happy “ran away to Richmond” for the first time during Easter Week 1957. He was a ninth-grader. After a Good Friday dispute with this father, he left. “I siphoned gas for some old guys who taught me how to drink beer, lived in a Church Hill flop, and I was this pimply-faced cat with my hair in a flattop who sold magazines door to door for the Keystone Readers Service.” He used the name Rodney Calhoun, and by the second or third week, he was the top seller. One day, he walked into the office and the supervisor growled, “Jimmy, call your mother.”
“I had an uncle who’d worked for the FBI,” Happy says, chuckling. “And he used his connections to find me. It was summertime by then.”
He received tutoring to get up to speed for classes. “But I never really lived at home after that,” Happy says.
Happy the Artist in his natural habitat: a hat (Photo by Jennifer Simmons)
He embarked on an ongoing journey of life experiences and art making. In 1988, while accompanying his brother-in-law on a house-hunting expedition here, the Kuhns found for themselves a 1,500-square-foot house on Esquire Road off Robious where they decided to move. “It was a great experience,” Happy says. “Close to shopping, lots of kids in the neighborhood, and they didn’t have to cross a busy street to get to school.”
He established studios in the Fan and Carytown, but these days, he lives at his late father’s place in Page County.
He works just about wherever he’s bidden, and he’s currently creating a mural for the Keystone Truck and Tractor Museum in Colonial Heights. That may seem an unusual place for a Happy mural, but then again, happiness is where you find it.