Visitors spilled out onto the porch of the Pebble Gallery at Featherstone Center for the Arts Sunday afternoon, chatting and enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. Inside, art lovers and well-wishers surrounded Ruth Epstein, offering hugs and congratulations for this, her first gallery exhibition ever.
A glance around the airy one-room gallery would suggest that this must be a four-artist show. There were four entirely disparate collections on display, four separate media, four absolutely different styles. But everything here — from fanciful costumed dolls to sleek, sophisticated alabaster sculptures and much more — was created by the remarkable and prolific Ms. Epstein over many decades.
Titled by her daughter, Lisa, “A Creative Life,” the impressive retrospective show chronicles works created by Ms. Epstein while she lived in her native Holyoke with her late husband, A. William Epstein, and raised four children. She made sculpture pieces at her winter home in Florida.
She recalls beginning to do artwork on her kitchen table in the mid-1950s (her first creations were collages using dried beans, to create cheerful wall hangings). And she is still at it 60 years later.
Ms. Epstein did her current collages, some lush and decorative, some bearing family significance, over the past six years, since she moved to Martha’s Vineyard after her husband died.
“I wanted to leave Holyoke,” she recalled of that difficult time. The perfect solution appeared when her daughter invited Ms. Epstein to move into her West Tisbury guesthouse. She is delighted with the change.
“The Vineyard is a perfect place to start over, to start your life from a different angle when you don’t have a spouse,” she said.
Ms. Epstein created a particularly moving collage soon after her husband’s death, in his memory. “The Journey” shows a woman, gazing off towards the sea, her new Vineyard home. It incorporates a poem describing the sense of chaos and powerlessness after a loss or wrenching change, with romantic images of flowers, ocean, and sky interspersed with photos of her husband, an image of the smiling young couple at their wedding years earlier.
“I felt better after I did it,” she confided.
Another dramatic collage is chilling in its significance, with faded, tattered letters, map fragments, and old-fashioned black-and-white photos telling a story devastating for the Epsteins and countless other families.
The graphic depiction of the Holocaust was inspired by a shoebox of faded Yiddish letters written by Ms. Epstein’s grandmother, Hava Mittleman, from Poland to her mother in the United States. The last was dated August, 1939. Hitler invaded Poland on Sept. 1. The grandmother and all her relatives were shot, killed, buried in mass graves.
“I made it for my family,” said Ms. Epstein. “I thought my children should know.”
Some of the collages are just plain pretty and delightful to look at. There is a garden of songbirds, arrays of lush, colorful flowers. “Angels Watching Over Me” features crowds of sweet-faced cherubs and “has a very calming effect,” the artist said.
“Big Mama” combines a white baby dress, lacy bonnets, tiny tie-up shoes, and an old-fashioned doll. There is a yellowed newspaper, The New York Tribune, January 3, 1861, only months before the Civil War began.
Snuggled on a couch and displayed on pedestals is a huge extended family of Ms. Epstein’s whimsical dolls. “All Dolled Up” reads the sign as they show off flashy garb, striking combinations of colors, textures, styles, each with a distinct personality. The artist made the stuffed fabric dolls beginning in the mid-1980s, dressing them in recycled garments and fabrics.
“The Healer” has wild red hair and many-hued New-Age style clothes. A pretty mermaid in iridescent ocean colors lolls languidly in a seashell, and there are many others.
But there was more! In front of a wide window, five graceful alabaster sculptures glowed softly in the afternoon sun, curved, sensuous, their smooth surfaces calling to be touched.
Ms. Epstein described to one fascinated viewer the power tools and techniques she used to mold and polish the alabaster. She created them during the 1990s in the Boynton Beach studio of the Stone Gallery, which offered the outdoor facilities needed for working with alabaster.
“It’s messy, but very satisfying,” she said.
Nor was that all. Flanking the window hung two soft ivory quilts, adorned with big lacy flower designs. Roughly textured decorative hangings were displayed on platforms and walls. Ms. Epstein recalled her beloved handmade Swedish loom she used to create them in the 1970s, and explained that she often used roving (raw yarn) for textural variations and inserted wires to add dimension.
Not surprisingly, the fashionable shawl that Ms. Epstein wore to accent her white outfit, reversible, multi-colored and stunning, was a piece she made herself.
A self-taught artist, Ms. Epstein was accepted to the Art Department of Syracuse University in the 1940s. But she felt the other students were too talented for her and studied merchandising and fashion design instead.
“I just have that fortunate ability,” she mused. “I like challenges. If I see something that intrigues me, I will research it and try to find out how to do it. That makes life more interesting, and allows you to grow.”