Hannah Epstein, also known as hanski, has been working furiously during her Work in Progress residency. She gave herself only a month to create and finish work for a solo show at Pennsylvania State centered around their mascot Nittany Lion. The show re-contextualizes the sports mascot as a eco-warrior, supporting the earth instead of a sports team. Epstein developed the earth character into a tabloid star, going through a meltdown, from tears forming from her melting ice caps, to shaving off the amazon in a nod to 2007 Britney Spears. This work is emblematic of her work up to this point, but she is ready to push forward.
Color is a large part of her work, with bold graphic elements, but moving forward she is looking to work only with shades of white saying “I really want to tone it all down and and kind of purity and kind of change from there.” Growing up in gray and cold Nova Scotia, any bit of color stood out. The sources ranged from local folk craft, to television and her mother’s yarn drawers. These memories have left impressions and influences on her work to this point, but Epstein doesn’t want to just continue doing the same work without expanding herself and challenging the spaces she is already in. She has always worked and sought out the fringe, constantly moving out when things become absorbed into the mainstream.
Gallery representation has not changed this for Epstein, in fact, she feels that some galleries actually offer a space for more interesting work. They are a part of a market, and need to keep buyers interested in what is new or the future of art. But artists can then fall prey to producing the same thing over and over, feeling as if that is what is expected so that is what they will make. It is up to the artist to push themselves forward in their creativity and not fall back on what has worked up to this point. The white cube gallery absorbs the fringe, moves it into the mainstream and thus justifies it as real art. It is no longer just folk art or amateur.
I feel like the challenge is more on me on how am I going to expand myself as an artist and constantly challenge the spaces I’m in and but also keep leveling up. I’m not trying to shoot myself in the foot. I’ve been given a platform, bounce off of it as much as I can.
This desire to exist on the fringe has followed Epstein throughout her career, back to her degree in Folklore. She describes it as an anti-academic academic discipline where you learn to really listen and study the stories that are told, finding the subtext. The bottom-up storytelling technique became a methodology, bringing the more mundane or folkcraft into a gallery setting. But once there, the focus needs to turn to the content and not be stuck in the everlasting discussion of craft in galleries or the acceptance of fiber art. For this current show in progress, the point is to be about global warming, not just rug hooking.
To me, painting, folk craft, rug hooking, all exist on the same level. Paint does not have a higher status, the reality does not exist on a higher echelon. [...] Once they’re given the right framing, you can talk about the content of it a lot more.
Epstein started rug hooking in her mid-twenties after a realization while traveling that she needed to know at least one thing that was slightly practical. At this point she was back home in Nova Scotia surrounded by traditional folk craft. To her, these all had boring imagery, not reaching the potential of the medium. “So I was like, i’m going to learn how to do this, and I’m going to do the images that I want to see with this accessible folk craft.” Prior she did not have a studio art practice, and had never studied art. Growing up, her mother was a librarian for the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design as well as a knitwear designer. Her father dated many artists as well, so while she was not in school for art, she was always surrounded. She only pursued her MFA after realizing that she was not going to be taken seriously without it.
The process is simple, Epstein draws an image on a piece of burlap then goes back over it with the hook, filling in the holes. Instead of sketching before, she usually goes straight to the burlap, sketching out the design. She is not an illustrator, so what turns out is what it is. “I want it to be as casual , one-off, sketchy drawing that is as labour intensive as possible. Really throw-away drawing, days and days of work.” Recently there has been a combining of digital media, through projections or video screens, with the rugs. The goal is a more full and seamless imbedding, so it becomes a fully integrated piece. Media dialogue is a large conversation or theme found in art today, and even outside of this space, we are overly saturated with media. The constant desire to move outside of the mainstream is pushing towards an exploration of the spiritual. Television and her mother’s yarn drawers pushed Epstein to embrace color and graphic imagery, but the graphic with the digital and color are almost becoming too mainstream now. Instead she wants to explore a quiet calmness through removing color.
There’s a lot of rage, there’s a lot of combo of rage and also desire to be joyous in the face of horror. Wanting to find fun, like the raging against the dying of the light except more like rage against things in generally being really shitty.
She leaves right after this residency for a residency in Iceland, which will bring a tranquil solitude, perfect for this new thematic shift. The community aspect of the Work in Progress residency is what drew Epstein to the residency, a good counterbalance to her next month in Iceland. Studio work can be lonesome, and just having people around makes it feel less so. She has been able to maintain her studio work vibe, but feel more in the world. Not just in the studio, but she felt a need to be out in the world more in general. Epstein’s been enjoying her stay in New York, going out dancing and dating. These last few months have been about self-discovery and pushing her career and work forward, and this time in New York has been great for both.
I think that people should know that it’s been a long slog of riding this subversive Trojan horse into the gallery art world. I’m kind of in this state of feeling good about where it’s at and been patting myself on the back a lot recently. This is working, this is good. The struggle is real, but also persistence pays off.