Susan Hintz-Epstein: Nature’s Ambassador

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.

al;ksdjh;sdkfjWhat got you interested in Native cultures, as well as shamanic practices?

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.

Some of the eyes of your masks in American Masquerade are “found objects.”a;nisjdfv; What’s the craziest or weirdest place you’ve found something to use in your art?

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!

Loud and Powerful: Joanna Hoffman

The Poetry At 1600 Feet series has given me the chance to work with people I’ve looked up to for a while now; one of them being the incredible Joanna Hoffman. In this interview, we talk about her slam career, inspiration, and the opportunity for people from the back row to get up front and shout it out.

I know the exact moment I was hooked on spoken word poetry. Did you have a specific moment that made it click for you, or maybe a certain poem, or person?

I started writing poems when I was in middle school, and in high school I became the Editor in Chief of my school’s Literary Magazine. During that time, I was really into Ani DiFranco and she had a few spoken word pieces on her CD’s. One that stood out to me was “My IQ” from her album “Not a Pretty Girl”. Also around the same time, I watched the movie “Slam” and was completely in awe of the poets in the film (Saul Williams, Beau Sia, DJ Renegade, and Sonja Sohn, who later went on to star in The Wire). I had never heard of slam poetry before, and was really struck by the idea that there was a space for shy, unathletic kids like me, who loved writing, to be loud and powerful. When I got to college, I immediately sought out open mic nights in Baltimore and started performing regularly. One night, the host suggested I check out Baltimore’s weekly poetry slam. I had an amazing night, and also loved the people I met there and how incredibly warm, welcoming and supportive they were. That’s when I was hooked.

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What made you want to teach (workshops) as well as perform?

I think that both performing and teaching are about finding a human connection. To be effective as a performer, I need to be accessible, relatable, and authentic. Personally, after I had been slamming for about fifteen (!!) years, I felt like I was more than ready to step back from the stage and dedicate my time and energy to supporting poets who are new to it. I found that the qualities that make an effective performer also make an effective educator. Also, I love talking about poems and writing and creative processes, and feel fortunate that there are people who want to listen to what I have to say about all that!

Are you influenced by any other mediums?

I’m definitely influenced by all kinds of mediums. I’m inspired by storytelling in all of its forms, and the power that comes from connecting to someone else’s experience. I’ve found that in the music of Janet Jackson and Neko Case and Beyoncé and so many others, in novels and painting and graffiti and really any way that someone puts their passion into expression.

How does your experience in the LGBT+ community affect your work?

My writing is a reflection of my life experiences, and that includes realizing I was a lesbian, coming out to my friends and family and coworkers (a process that never ends, really), working out my internal homophobia, navigating through the murkiness/awkwardness of gay bars and online dating and crushing on emotionally unavailable women, recovering from heartbreak, and falling in love. But that’s just my experience, as an individual, and as a middle-class white cisgender gay woman living in Brooklyn. I recognize the uniqueness of my experience in that way, and also the universality of it in the sense of having shame about who you are, learning to accept yourself, being part of a marginalized group, and of course the love/dating stuff. I think accessibility is important in writing and performing, and I hope to connect with people who are very different than I am along with people who aren’t.

Can you give any advice for aspiring writers?

My advice for writers of any level is to read as much as possible. Read poetry that pushes the boundaries of what you usually write about and how you usually write about it. If you never write form poems, read some sonnets. If you’ve never written about nature, read some nature poems. If there are topics you’re scared to write about, read poetry on those topics and also examine why it is you’ve thought of these topics as off-limits. And go beyond poetry– read novels and memoirs and short fiction and nonfiction. While you’re at it, go beyond reading and check out some photography and music and visual art. When I’m experiencing serious writers block, it inspires me to see how other people express themselves creatively.

If you had three wishes, what would they be?

  1. An end to all violence, including physical, sexual, mental and emotional violence, and systemic violence against marginalized communities.
  2. For all people to extend compassion beyond those in our immediate circles.
  3. To have all, or at least most of the people I love living much closer to me.

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Did you know that you share a name with one of the women who helped create the first Mac computer?

I sure do, and I wonder sometimes if she knows she shares a name with a lesbian Jewish poet living in Brooklyn.

Be sure to come see Joanna on Saturday, September 5th in the Piano Performance Museum (workshop at 5:30PM, performance and open mic at 7PM).

Guest Blog: Victoria Rinaldi on The Nutcracker

Whether you are dressed in a party dress, as a mouse, or an angel, the excitement
of standing in the wings, listening for your cue as the beautiful Tchaikovsky score from Nutcracker plays is an experience that will never leave you. For many, myself included, the Christmas season simply cannot begin until I Vic Pic3hear that music in a rehearsal studio.

My first exposure to the Nutcracker began at eight, as a young ballet student, when I was taken to the National Ballet in Washington DC to audition for one of the children’s roles. Through my career I worked my way up from soldier, to snowflake, to flower soloist and finally Sugar Plum Fairy, appearing in productions large and small all over the country. I have seen firsthand the magic this beloved classic casts on all involved. So, it is with great pleasure and excitement I endeavor to recreate this experience for our community on December 12th and 13th at the Orpheum Theater in Tannersville with the help of the Catskill Mountain Foundation and The Valentina Kozlova Dance Conservatory of New York.

The Nutcracker is full of wonderful dances and performing opportunities. The 1st act snow scene and the major dancing roles in the 2nd act will be performed by exquisite dancers from Kozlova’s Dance Conservatory Performance Project and will be based on the Bolshoi Ballet version that Valentina danced before her defection to the United States. World famous choreographer, Margo Sappington will play the role of Auntie Drosselmeyer. The starring roles of Clara and the Nutcracker Prince will be filled by accomplished local dance students.

But we are on the hunt for boys, girls, men and women for Fritz, (Clara’s younger brother) Clara’s friends, party parents, mice, soldiers, angels and Mother Ginger’s children to complete the cast. If you have some dance experience GREAT. If you don’t THAT’S GREAT TOO! The cast should expect to rehearse at least one a week, be able to follow music and direction and be ready to HAVE FUN. If performing is not your thing… don’t worry, you can still be a part of the show. We need volunteers to help with angel wings and mice tails!

Auditions for the Nutcracker will be at the Red Barn in Hunter, NY on Oct. 3. And don’t let the word audition scare you off, it’s not a big deal! So, see you there!