Arts

Turning floors into folklore: Hannah Epstein is telling incredible stories...with debaucherous rugs

Driven by the impulse to stir things up, Nova Scotia-born Epstein is — among many other things — a troublemaker.

Driven by the impulse to stir things up, Nova Scotia-born Epstein is — among other things — a troublemaker

Hannah Epstein at work. (Hannah Epstein)

Can a rug make mischief?

The very first rug that artist Hannah Epstein ever made hangs above a desk in her Toronto work room. It's a fuzzy patch, a bit smaller than a broadsheet, made from burlap and acrylic yarn. On it, there's an alligator throttling a triple-ex jug in its claw. It's wearing a top hat and cowboy boots and arranged into a sort of "ta-da" pose.

The character came to the 32-year-old Nova Scotia-born artist from a story told to her about a middle schooler in P.E.I. who'd had the magical creature branded on him with a homemade tattoo. The storyteller went as the sauced-up reptile dandy one Halloween, raising it to a sort of local legend. Epstein has memorialized it a rank further, retold and preserved now in the Maritime craft tradition of the hooked rug. The lizard lush has become something of a folktale.

Hannah Epstein's art. (Hannah Epstein)

Epstein calls herself a folklorist. Her art practice is interested in contemporary fables and myth-making, the idolatry that builds tradition as well as the iconoclasm that topples it. (And, to that end, she's a proud troublemaker.) Growing up in the East Coast, she was surrounded by rug hookings — those folksy wall hangings made from looped yarn that picture, say, a bunny or some daisies or a cozy cottage. She's made it her Trojan horse, she says, using what some might consider "the lowly craft of grannies" to get inside the guarded walls of the art world.  

Epstein's visual universe bleeds cartoon debauchery. She lists Bill the Cat among her early influences. "The Simpsons basically built my world, aesthetically," she says. Her lurid, ribald and jokey hookings subvert the tradition enough to freak out the craft fair crowd and slip past the gatekeepers into the sphere of galleries and cultural institutions. Her rugs appeared in the first-ever Canadian Craft Biennial this past Fall as well as the Textile Museum's 150 Years of Canadian Hooked Rugs travelling exhibition. She just deinstalled a major solo show at Steve Turner Contemporary in Los Angeles, where she also keeps a studio. The Trojan horse has worked; the outré and provincial can infiltrate the orthodox.

Hannah Epstein with her creation. (Hannah Epstein)

Her practice values what she calls "bottom-up storytelling." She celebrates the informal and the anecdotal — tales shared over a joint or a bar rail — rather than the authoritative and official. "In Newfoundland, for a long time, fishermen all had stories about giant squids, and it was considered laughable," she explains. "People would analyze it and say, 'What they're really talking about is a fear of the sea,' or something like that. Turns out, giant squids actually exist."

She's made a large body of work inspired by memes: the paranoid catchphrase "Jet fuel can't melt steel beams," for example, or the botched Ecce Homo restoration — all emblematic of present-day folk cultures, she says.

A self-described "Nova Scotian who never felt like she belonged there," Epstein's own outsider status spurs her art a bit like a challenge. She felt dismissed by the woman in Clayton Park whom she first enlisted to teach her rug hooking, for example. She feels like there's an archetypal crafter on the East Coast who just won't accept what she does. Her embrace of rug-making is in part a vengeance — she wants to take this thing they love and twist it just a little. It's evidenced maybe best in her second-ever effort, where she's hooked the image of her, legs agape, birthing herself into the world.

Hannah Epstein at work. (Hannah Epstein)

That instinct hasn't abated; rather, she indulges it. In another series — perhaps her best-known works — she sought to conjure demons. She'd trance out and channel monster forms before setting to her workstation to bring them forth in wool and polyester. She calls Mouser, an oversized shaggy cat head with yellowcake eyes and a mouth full of fangs, among the most powerful spirits that she'd summoned. For a time, he hung in her hall, monitoring the doorway like a sphinx. He is mischievousness embodied, she says. "That's my imperative, I guess." If there's anything that drives her to create, she explains, it's the impulse to stir things up.

Learn more about Hannah Epstein's work here.

About the Author

Chris Hampton is a Toronto-based freelance arts and culture writer. His work has appeared elsewhere in The New York Times, the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The Walrus, and Canadian Art. Find him on Instagram: @chris.hampton

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