Interview with TotesFerosh (Josh Epstein)

“Plant Daddy” by TotesFerosh

When did you start to consider yourself an artist or when did you know that you were on that path?

I’ve always loved art and knew I would have some sort of art-related career. I went to college at an art school in Detroit and studied graphic design which I felt was a blend of art and computer graphics. I quickly realized that my career choices skewed further from the artistic side and more towards marketing, user experience, and technology. For ten years, I’ve been a user experience designer, but within the last two years or so, I’ve taken big steps to get back into traditional art and have started really referring to myself as an artist. I’ve built out an official studio in my home, I’ve opened up an Etsy shop with art-forward products, and I’ve been regularly going to gallery openings and exhibiting.

How did you get interested in linocut specifically?

When I first explain my process to new people, they often say “Oh, I did that process in 7th grade!” I have been drawn to the meditative nature of hand carving linoleum blocks ever since I was a teenager. The style of linocut is very stark in contrast and reminiscent of the illustrative style used in comics. My work and aesthetic are largely influenced by a childhood infatuation with superheroes and anime, specifically intensified during my time living in Japan. These characters often present one significant trait which ostracizes them from society, not unlike many Queer people.

What were the themes and intentions behind your work when you first started as an artist?

I really want to tell stories from my community, from myself, from people I know, and people I’ve observed. Living in Chicago, you see a lot of interesting people, and I want to capture that in my subjects. One of my most popular shirt designs “Pikachu on a leash” is inspired by a real-life experience. It was Halloween 2013 in the North Halsted neighborhood (formerly Boystown). My partner and I had just started dating and I convinced him to let us dress up as Pikachu and Ash. It was your typical hand-crafted wholesome costume made from felt and thrift store finds. Our costume was probably one of the most popular of the night. Until we came across another Pikachu/Ash couple at the bar. There was one major difference with their costume from ours. Pikachu was completely naked other than a yellow thong with a tail, yellow ears, and a leash. I found the contrast between our costumes fascinating and I knew I had to capture this moment with my medium. 

This being your first solo exhibition, what were your intentions and expectations behind the work? 

My art has always been heavily influenced by anime and comics, and when you think of anime, most people default to cute characters with expressive faces and fanciful outfits. In years past, my work has been focused on handsome, fashionable characters, but sometimes lacked a narrative and depth. This year, I’ve really had time to think about what I want to say with my art, and that is to celebrate the diversity of my community. Sexual and body positivity is a huge piece of Queer culture that is still seen as taboo, even by many people within the community. So I would say my intent was to have more narrative focused artwork, and with that, it started to become sexier and more raw, and show faces that feel more authentic and less perfect. 

“Peak Chic” by TotesFerosh

With the mixed media aspect of “My Dazzling Queer Fantasy”, what is your process like from start to finish?

My work highlights my signature linocut style as the key medium. Each subject of my work is carved by hand from a block of linoleum, taking up to 20 hours per block. I then ink each carving and press them into paper using a hand-operated press, revealing unique multiples. Once cut out and prepped with a sealant, the linocuts are assembled on cradled pine wood panels and adorned with a colorful assortment of acrylics, charcoals, and other media. Lastly, I pour the ArtResin mixture on top of each piece, encasing all components under a dazzling, hyper-glossy surface.

What is important to you when putting your work out into the public? 

In Chicago, I’ve struggled finding other Queer artists. I know they are out there, but I haven’t met many in the mainstream art scene. As someone beginning to be known in that scene, I feel like it’s my responsibility to make a statement with my work. I don’t want to speak for the entire community, but I’d like my presence to feel like an invitation for other Queer folx to attend. My Man Up series (which I showed with Elephant Room Gallery at the Blackstone Hotel in 2019) was really my first introduction into that. I initially produced that series for a high profile show which I knew would see at least 1000 visitors on opening night. This platform was a great opportunity to speak for the unheard and amplify the voices who are often censored or not asked to show in these sort of gallery spaces. Generally, this series was a huge hit. At the show, I gave out free mini prints of the pieces, and every so often, I come across a photo of an artists’ studio who has one hung up, or I meet someone who says “Oh YOU’RE the artist that made that?” 

How did the pandemic and all that is going on in the world affect your practice as an artist?

Something I found extremely rewarding during the pandemic was starting to get into public artworks and murals. Living right downtown, most of Chicago became boarded up quickly during the pandemic. These board-ups were quickly seen as blank canvases for artists, and I jumped right in to help beautify these neighborhoods. My favorite artwork I created was with the Elephant Room Gallery at the Blackstone hotel last summer. It was my first public piece which was specifically related to Pride and we auctioned the piece off to donate to a local LGBTQ charity. Other pieces I’ve worked on were more message-based and encourages passer-bys to donate and educate to BLM.

TotesFerosh painting a board-up at The Blackstone Hotel in 2020

As an artist who works in linocut, are you interested in the history of linocut as a medium? Do you ever see yourself departing from that or is that a very important part of your identity as an artist? 

I think understanding the history of your medium and art in general is crucial for creating a new future. Many classic linocut techniques inspire what I am doing now, but I modify them to meet my needs and current lifestyle. Linocut is an extremely time consuming method, so anything I can do to speed that up, I’ll try it! I’ve always felt linocut was my signature medium, and I love trying out other techniques, but I seem to always come back to linocut. Plus, I have a printing press in my home that is extremely large, heavy, and expensive, so I’ve officially invested enough into it that I can’t give it up! 

What is next for you and your work?

This is a great question! Having a solo show has been a goal of mine since 2016 and I’ve been working with the Elephant Room Gallery on this show since pre-pandemic. With all the great reception from my show, I feel empowered to keep trying new things, test out other content, and expand my net outside of Chicago’s mainstream scene. I want to continue with initiatives that share my values, have a philanthropic aspect to them, and empower other LGBTQ people to tell their stories through art. Right now, I’m working on curating my first show, which will be a Queer-focused group exhibition. It’s still in the works, but I’m thinking it will open this October at BLNK Haus in Logan Square. Stay tuned for more info. 

“Fishnet Flair” by TotesFerosh

“My Dazzling Queer Fantasy” is on exhibition at Elephant Room Gallery June 4th – 27th. Contact with inquiries on available works and check out the artist’s Etsy shop.

Published by Kimberly Leja Atwood

Kimberly Leja Atwood is co-owner and curator at Elephant Room Gallery in Chicago, established in 2009. Born and raised in the Chicago area, Kimberly received her BFA in Photography & Video from the University of Illinois in 2006. Seeing fellow artists struggle to find opportunities to exhibit their work locally and gain recognition inspired Kimberly to create an art space that was accessible to under-represented, new and emerging artists. She aims to bring more exposure to these artists and grow the relationships between artists, collectors and the community.

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