I can now check interview a Reiki Healer off of my bucket list, because Susan Hintz-Epstein is more than just a mask maker! I had the great opportunity to learn about her part in the Kaaterskill Fine Arts & Crafts Gallery’s latest American Masquerade exhibition, as well as Reiki and multiple Native cultures.
There are a LOT of artists that are involved in American Masquerade if you look at all of the events from the Mainly Greene cooperative, so there are a lot of different interpretations of the theme. You took a very literal approach to it; can you tell me about that?
I started much rougher than these masks that you see in the show. I wanted to make something that expressed the spirit, or essence, of the animal as also would have been seen through the eyes or awareness of ancient peoples who lived with the animals. I was very moved at the beginning by the book Black Elk Speaks. Black Elk was a Lakota who was born prior to Custer’s Last Stand and lived in the old way, close to the land while there were still buffalo to hunt. A person of that time worked very closely with the animals whose help assured his survival. Animals partnered the people. A mask could help one take on the characteristics of the animals one lived with or wanted to hunt. I wanted to see what that felt like.
Your masks look very detailed – hand cut leather, painted eyes – how long did it take to make each one?
If I had nothing else to do, a mask like these could take me three to six weeks working all day. Patience was necessary because of the drying time for the paper mache. If you have taken one off the wall to look, you will see how very thick I have worked the foundation for the sculpture.
When I was still a child, I felt something missing from life in the way I was being raised, and later I realized that was a close involvement with Nature. I idealized the old ways of the Native Americans because they had lived close to Nature. In my late twenties, psychic gifts began to awaken for me, and these included awareness of the energies of the plants and animals around me. At that time I was a farmer’s wife, and I had ample opportunity to work with animals and keep a garden. I read a lot: Carlos Castenada and Black Elk, and I studied Gurdjieff with Ann Kelly and Don Petacchi. The Gurdjieff work is a path toward conscious being. In the 1980’s and 1990’s I did not find available shamans to work with, but in 2004 doors began to open for me and I met people who directed me to the next stage of learning. I studied Reiki, I became initiated as a Mesa Carrier, and now I work with the Runes in a shamanic practice that is based upon a reconstruction of the ancient Norse traditions.
What Native culture(s) do you find most interesting?
The Lakota are the most interesting, as they were among the last tribes to be conquered and thus have a more complete access to their oldest traditions. The true medicine people among them teach to walk the Earth in a humble way.
Explain to me what it is to be a shaman in this day and age.
It is like practicing a job no one knows about. It is an inner knowing that holds awareness of the spirits of Nature that are around one, it is like being a diplomat between the spirit world and the world of human beings. Part of the job includes being a “psychopomp,” one who crosses the dead over to the world of spirit. A shaman can interact between people and the world of spirits. We have freed places from dark entities. A shaman may also be a healer and/or a holy person who can work with energies and prayer to make life better for others, to bring balance back to what is out of balance. To be a shaman is to be a Spirit-worker. You can be a shaman and a healer, but just because you are a healer does not make you a shaman.
I once made a rearing horse sculpture using wire I took down from an electric fence. The horses had been playing, and a mare I had reared up and the wire expressed my impression for the sculpture. As for eyes, I love beads. My best ones came from a bead store that used to be in Woodstock, but I think they went out of business. Sometimes I find really neat old jewelry in thrift shops that I take apart and play with.
What’s your favorite season and why?
Every season holds it’s own mood and beauty. I tend to prefer the changes of spring and fall because I am fascinated by the energies of things coming into being and things passing away. Both are a time of change and color. Spring brings back color from the gray cold of winter and autumn brings us vivid hues of changing leaves and the browning down of things from green. But winter allows me to test my levels of strength, endurance, and patience. All seasons are good.
Susan will be giving an art talk in the Kaaterskill Gallery on Saturday, October 3, from 1 to 3PM. Don’t forget to check in with CMF on Facebook – Susan has been kind enough to show me some of what she does as a shaman, and the video is coming soon!