Yale Epstein, whose retrospective-like From The Ashes – (burned and saved) exhibit in the solo gallery space at the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum runs through this month, is standing at the site where his home and studio burned this past April. A pile of plastic bags and mottled art works leans against a tree, more charred paper pieces sit on tables and boxes under a series of tarps. He explains how he’s been coming here daily, sorting through what’s remained of his 60-plus year art career, planning new works, and his new home and studio, which insurance requires must be built within two years of the conflagration being covered.
Epstein wants to explain how his WAAM show — which juxtaposes calligraphic works on paper with mixed media abstractions, early acrylic paintings and even a self-portrait from his student days up against a dramatic wall of burned works — had several curators beyond himself and Sylvia Leonard Wolf.
“The first curating was taken care of the night of the fire,” he says, describing the middle-of-night scene where he and those on hand, including neighbor Dr. Neil Ratner, got what they could out from the blaze.
The second curator, Epstein adds, was the fire insurance company rep who started pulling items out of the house and studio’s remains, suggesting they be saved. Then came contractor Doug Ostrander, who became adept at spotting works on paper and framed pieces while bulldozing the site for future use.
The artist pauses before showing what was salvaged, some of it cut for future collage purposes as part of work he started in on in recent years, printing photos over older art works. Then he shows off what didn’t make it on to the “sculpted by fire” wall at WAAM…cracked and charred photo portraits of a young girl and old sadhu taken on trips to India, a blackened box of coloring pencils, completed wax and crackled paint surface paintings lent added lustre and burnish by the spring tragedy.
Seen alongside the fire wall in the gallery, which includes an easel, a giant charred photo portrait of an orthodox Jew smoking a cigarette, and a triplet of blackened and curled prints on the wall — each piece described as “transformed” — one gets a sense that Yale Epstein’s about to start making something worthwhile from his misfortune.
“I never know what direction I’m going to go in with a piece,” he says at his Wiley Lane homesite. “But I do see something emerging with this material.”
The phenomenon of artists gaining new vision from fires that take their life’s work is not new. There’s a book on it, On Fire by Jonathan Griffin, that looks at the experiences of ten artists who’ve lost studios, including Columbia County’s Catherine Owen. The author explores a number of responses, from guilt and loss to a sense of rebirth and renewal.
In Woodstock, we spoke with the abstract painter Melinda Stickney-Gibson, whose move to the Phoenicia area was prompted by a 1986 loft fire in Chicago.
“Everything burned up. Both our dogs died. We were above a metal plating factory and it blew up; parts of the building flew for blocks,” she recalls. “We moved in with friends out in the high desert above Palm Springs, in California, and then came east.”
Stickney-Gibson noted how there was some earlier work in galleries at the time, but all she wanted was to start anew. Only after she assembled new pieces for an exhibit did her gallerist point out how the new art was on lead and steel…things that didn’t burn. Later she started painting large again…on fire doors.
“It wasn’t a decision, it was what I did,” she recalls. “There was an absolute, complete sense of freedom that enveloped me after I lost everything. I think of it often, how you have to make the work you want and all your greater plans don’t matter. It was horrible but it was liberating.”
Epstein, fresher into his own stages of recovery, is quick to talk about how he had to find replacement art for an exhibit with a printed catalogue set to go to press in the week following his April fire. And he speaks about his struggle to find work at galleries, or in collections, for other commitments over the past three months.
That, he admits, was a struggle. But somehow, like Stickney-Gibson, he’s found something liberating when he shifts from the business of art to its ongoing creation.
“When I first started sifting through works for this WAAM exhibit with Sylvia I started thinking something was wrong with me,” Epstein says, adding how he felt separate from his art work in a profound way, no longer experiencing it the way he did when constantly immersed in its making, or surrounded by it. “I realized I’m really me even without the art. That was a revelation.”
Also, with Wolf’s help, he started to realize how fire had worked as a partner in his artmaking, taking works to areas he could never have gotten to on his own. As with the smoking photo, or the transformed easel and paints, or the triplet of scarred and twisted paper pieces.
Now, Yale Epstein is looking to explore more deeply into the materials he’s gained from the fire’s transformative help. He’s enjoying working with a camera in new ways, recalling his years as a student at Brooklyn College in the 1950s, when art was bursting into new territory all over New York City and the world.
“I’m turning a corner based on what’s here,” he summarized.
Talk about what the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats once termed “a terrible beauty” in all things changed, “changed utterly.”