The collector

Ruth Epstein’s spent a lifetime collecting — and creating — the beauty that surrounds her.


Ruth Epstein, who turned 93 in July, cheerily greets me at the door of the guest home her son-in-law Ivory Littlefield, a sculptor and woodworker, built on the property he shares with his wife Lisa Epstein and their daughter. Ruth Epstein moved in in 2009, and has lived in and worked on her art in her 800-square-foot digs, which also houses a number of collections whittled down to fit. Maybe you’ve seen her artwork in 2016 at Featherstone Center for the Arts, or one of Epstein’s collage exhibitions at our local libraries, or even in our hospital’s art collection. Epstein says, “I have changed my medium every 10 years, and have been fortunate to do so.” Her artwork is everywhere your eye gazes, including alabaster stone sculptures on floors, tables, and windowsills; dolls (both large, soft ones and small, eclectic, more tribal figures) displayed on tables and windowsills; framed collages based on her family’s immigration from Eastern Europe to the U.S. prior to WW II; and more. Her home is rich with natural light, and densely filled with art, her weavings, her collections, and memorabilia from a life fully lived.
How did she start collecting vintage hats? She and her sister “came down here in the ’80s, and had a women’s boutique in Edgartown for eight years. I started collecting hats after I gave up working with my sister. Hats represented time and history, and that’s what I loved about them. I started with one. One developed into two, and before I knew it, I was fascinated.” Though her mother wore hats, they were small, more like worn accents to complement hairstyle rather than bold statements. Epstein was always “looking,” and had been going to the Brimfield flea market for years. At home in Holyoke, where she was raising her family, there was a room with “wallpaper falling down.” She didn’t want to redo it, so she “started putting nails in the wall and filled it up.” She collected close to 150 hats, dating from the days of “covered wagons, 1850 to 1950.” When I ask where she found her hats, Epstein says, “All over. You know, once you’re into something you see them everywhere, and then it just became an obsession. Like this one I knew was Parisian, I don’t know how I knew that, but you can see if I show you the inside, though they’re falling apart.”

Epstein was not a collector who read a history of hats, but gravitated to what visually pleased her wherever her finds came from. She still has a classic Knott’s bowler. Then she brings over a hat that’s so heavy I can’t imagine a lady wearing it for more than a quick tea at a garden party. Though the collection is pared down, the remaining examples certainly give me an idea as to the range of her collecting sensibility. Epstein’s collecting began with snuff bottles. Now the hats are nearly gone; Epstein shows me an album filled with photos of each hat in her collection hanging on its respective nail. The collection went to the Skinner auction house in Boston. What’s left, she says, “I have by accident, like ones that remained behind or weren’t in that room. I had to give up and live differently, and that’s not easy,” Epstein says about her move. “I’m very fortunate I’ve been allowed to make art, do a lot of it and enjoy it.”
Another collection close to Ruth’s heart is her quilt collection. She’s sold all her cotton ones, but still has a few silk, and one very special quilt, which she is leading me into the bedroom to show me. We pass her Judith Leiber handbags, “from very early in her career” hanging on a rack over her door. Leiber had recently died, and these look nothing like what she’s known for. Epstein opens a closet, telling me, “My mother was a quilter too.” Though I offer, she does not need any help as she pulls out one of the last quilts her mother made, in her late 80s, using old silk ties. Then she reaches for her pièéce de résistance, saying she knew she had something really special when her son, photographer Mitch Epstein, sent her a box of cards from the Metropolitan Museum and she realized she had “a sister quilt to one at the Met” that she bought from the quilter’s granddaughter, who was in her 80s. Made in 1880 by Aletta A. Whitehouse Davis of Topsham, Maine, a year before her death, and in pristine condition. It was breathtaking, how the material and colors have held up. The stitching, embroidery, and detail are spectacular. Epstein bought it 40-plus years ago, emptying out every place she had a few dollars hidden in her home to come up with the $175 price, because once she saw it she had to have it.

I could have spent hours hanging out with Ruth Epstein, everywhere I turn there’s something that catches my eye, and of course everything has a story. By the way, during my hour visit we never even sat down once.