by Nat Frothingham
BERLIN — Ed Epstein, a local artist who is also a musician and builder of stoves, furnaces, houses and boats — is showing a range of his acrylic paintings at the Central Vermont Medical Center Gallery.
Paintings include portraits of his friends, his children, a few landscapes, some gardens and flowers, a few paintings of abandoned cars, pick-up trucks and discarded drilling rigs and farm equipment — also a handful of lush — dream-like — sailing vessels — plying through the water under blue skies, their sails shimmering in the sun.
Epstein’s paintings — memorable because they are his alone — 32 in all — are on exhibition from now through Friday, January 8.
Epstein is a man of prodigiously diverse talents, skills and passions.
One of the paintings is based on a photograph taken of Epstein when he was 17. That was the summer when he hitchhiked across the country playing his banjo and singing. He started by going west, first travelling through the south to Mississippi all the way to California. Then after a few weeks in California he turned around and started east.
On his way back — somewhere in Illinois — he got a ride with a migrant farm worker who was driving a very old Plymouth and, to make his car last, he was driving at 20 miles an hour.
“I was with him most of the day coming east,” — coming east on Route 40 back when the east-west roads were still one-lane in each direction, before the coming of the interstate highway system. Somewhere in Indiana, the migrant farm worker was about to turn north toward Michigan. But before he headed north, he took a picture of Epstein with his banjo in front of that cadaverous, old Plymouth.
“I gave him my mother’s address in New York City,” Epstein said and that moment the photo disappeared from his life. Years later after his mother had died, he was visiting his sister in San Francisco. And there among his mother’s things was that photo of Epstein at 17 with his banjo standing in front of that old Plymouth.
Epstein took the photo and said to himself, “I have to do a painting of this thing” and that painting hangs in the exhibit.
But back to Epstein’s youth. “For a few years,” Epstein said, “I had been playing banjo. When I was 19, I discovered Bach. I put down the banjo and started playing the cello.”
Epstein came to Vermont in 1969 and when he was not pounding nails for minimum wage and building houses, or building Dynamite stoves, he was learning to play Bach Suites and chamber music on the cello. “I was a cellist for 35 years until my fingers started going numb,” he said. “Then I started playing the steel drum.”
Epstein spent 10 years in the Caribbean playing calypso music on the steel drum. “It was a great experience — world music from Africa and the Caribbean. In my early years, the folk music of Europe — Russia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean. The calypso music I was playing in the Caribbean was jazz. What we were playing in Trinidad is very sophisticated, complex. It’s got the modern, jazz-oriented character and quality to it. It’s the rich African music, very much influenced by American jazz with a lot of reverberations in Africa.”
Music as in playing the banjo, the cello, steel drums — building as in houses, stoves, sailing boats — travel over land and water — these and more such experiences have crowded into Epstein’s life and informed his art.
In the 1950s, Epstein began as an artist with dreams of making it big in the New York City arts world. He worked in advertising for awhile. Then he worked as a technical illustrator. A lot of his work was with small companies working for large corporations producing such things as manuals for some of the major armament suppliers — Raytheon, Sikorsky, General Electric.
“At the time,” said Epstein, “I was active in the anti-war movement during the early days of the Vietnam War. I would come to work and the guy sitting next to me would say, ‘Do you know what you are working on?’ Then this guy would answer his own question, ‘A missile firing panel.’
I started out doing representation art,” Epstein said. “Then I did some abstract work. But I lost interest in it. It didn’t satisfy me. I moved back to representational art.”
After he left New York City and came to Vermont, as an artist and painter, what has absorbed Epstein is the human face. “Most of what I’ve done all my life is the study of the human personality through the human face. I find it the most difficult, the most intriguing, the most satisfying and the most difficult,” he said.
Some of the people whose faces are represented in the exhibit are Bob and Joanna Messing, a young woman whose name is Jazmine Lamb and Janet Van Fleet, another well-known local artist.
Another of the paintings is of Alma Mueller who was a nurse at the hospital for years. Said Epstein, “She died last year. She was very well loved by the staff and nurses. Her portrait really belongs here.”
For all of his versatility and achievement, Epstein is disarmingly humble as he confronts the possibilities and impossibilities of creating art. Talking about light, he said, “It’s part of the mystery of how to paint. Choosing colors — I can’t imagine how I would explain it. It’s partly unconscious. We all respond to colors in our own way. What the artist is trying to do is almost impossible — painting on a flat surface and making it come alive.”
“I’ve said often,” Epstein continued, “Every painting is a disappointment. Just as writers would understand that. It never comes out perfect. But once in a while, it comes out pretty good.”