Rusty Epstein ’13 Talks Bates Theater, Depressing Fridge Poems, and More


Rusty Epstein ’13 is a man of many talents. He is an artist, a writer for Awf Magazine, a strategist for USA Today, and a ping-pong enthusiast, according to his LinkedIn. However, he is best known for, if his hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers are any indication, his popular social media series. On his main account, Epstein posts his own comics and satire headlines; on his account @depressingfridgepoems, he posts short poems — sometimes sweet, sometimes sad and oftentimes funny — made of flexible word magnets. 

Epstein’s creativity was shaped by his memorable time at Bates, where he earned a theater degree in 2013. Last month, he sat down with The Student to talk about his life from our Lewiston campus to his comics and his signature depressing fridge poems. 

The following conversation has been edited for concision and clarity.

Tell me a little bit about yourself!

I’m Rusty. I am originally from the Boston area. I am Bates class of 2013. So my 10 year reunion is coming up in a couple of months, which is also very exciting for me.


What do you hope to get out of the reunion? 

I went to the five-year reunion, which I had been nervous about. Coming back to Bates, which is a place that I hold very near and dear to my heart, I was like, ‘What if it’s such a let down or not, you know, everything that I wanted it to be?’ But it ended up being such a fantastic experience getting to see so many people that I love from my class and getting to be back on the campus and explore all the places that I loved to explore when I was a student.


What was it like majoring in theater at Bates? Did majoring in theater at Bates influence your decision to become a multimedia artist? 

I think Bates definitely influenced me to stay creative after leaving. I credit Bates a lot with really fostering a lot of my interests and things that I love to do now. Going into Bates, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I had no idea what I liked and what I was interested in. Once I got there, I  joined an a cappella group, I started working at the Ronj, and I became a theater major never having done theater before. It was really just an amazing experience where it was just all these very supportive people who encouraged you to try anything that you wanted to try and if you liked it then encouraged you to keep doing it. That was really special for me.


Is there a particular professor or a faculty member that had a major impact on your life?

I don’t know if I would necessarily say it was one professor. It was definitely all of my professors. My professors were fantastic at fostering that kind of interest and willingness to try new things. But I generally found that more in the student community. A lot of the things that I was doing were all things that were created by and run by students, whether it was the [Robinson] Players, or the Ronj, or the a capella community. Bates draws that kind of person that wants to be part of a close-knit community and help each other with anything that they want to do. More than anything, the Bates community is why I am still doing stuff like this right now.


Can you discuss a specific poet, a comic artist or a satirist who has had a significant influence on your work?

I’m primarily focused on webcomic and cartooning, illustration, as well as some satire on the side. Major influences for that … there’s some contemporary ones, like “Poorly Drawn Lines” by cartoonist Reza Farazmand, and Nathan Pyle, who I love. They’ve definitely influenced my style a lot. I learned to read by reading “Peanuts” comics, so Charles Schultz has always held a very close place to my heart. His very dry sense of humor is always at the back of my mind, whenever I’m creating anything.


 Is there a specific poem, or a comic that challenged you in a new way? How were you able to navigate those challenges?

I don’t know if I can think of one specific poem or comic that has challenged me in a specific way. Illustration is something that I loved to do as a child but hadn’t really done for many, many years. I decided to pick it up again about a year ago and so I feel like every new comic that I draw is like a brand-new challenge. It’s either figuring out some kind of basic artistic skill that I have fully forgotten about over 15 years of not doing it — like, oh, here’s like where a shadow goes — or figuring out how to use the digital tools that I’m now using to create these things. And so I do feel like every single thing that I create is challenging in a new small way. I think it’s just a lot of little challenges. It’s not necessarily one big thing that I overcame in a specific comic.


Has your work ever started a political movement?

Oh, I don’t think so. I mean, I talked about politics in my work from time to time, but I don’t think so.


What is your favorite poem that you have worked on and why?

I think my favorite poem — which incidentally, I also turned into a comic —  is a really simple one. I can remember how it goes: “She walked with the sun, danced with the moon, and spoke to the stars; honestly, it was super weird.” I think that one is kind of a brief encapsulation of my style of content. I think it’s playfully poking fun at something while also being very dry and silly and I smile thinking about that one because I think it’s so dumb and silly.


Can you tell me a little bit about your creative process? How do you go about coming up with a poem or coming up with satire? Does an environment matter for you? Do you have to be in a specific environment for you to be in that space, tell me a little bit about that?

Yeah, in terms of coming up with the ideas, this is probably the same for a lot of people but if I sit down and try to come up with a list of ideas, it’s very difficult to do. And it’s hard to train your brain to generate creativity on demand. It’s really more if I’m talking to a friend, and they say something that happens to spark something in my brain, that’s when it comes to me. Or I’m watching TV and I see a random sign in the background and that sparks something. It’s very random and then you kind of have to jot it down as fast as possible, otherwise, you immediately forget it. And then actually doing the illustrating or writing, I do like being in a very quiet, dark room with some instrumental music going on. I’m very easily distracted.


Is there like a certain playlist that you gravitate towards more when you get into your creative process?

Yeah, I have a playlist of dramatic instrumental music that I like to listen to. I don’t know why it fuels creativity, but it really does. It’s like the kind of music that you would hear in the background of a very dramatic scene on TV and it feels very not similar to the vibe that I’m doing anything creative with but for some reason, it works.


Do you ever feel a little bit exposed? How do you navigate that feeling with other people’s opinion, whether that’s your family, or your friends, or random people on the internet?

Well, I think there’s always a very big divide between my family and friends, and random people on the internet. I do always value the opinions of people like my family and my friends and people who know me, or peers, other artists, and other writers. Then there’s the rest of the internet, who also love to have opinions about stuff and about strangers they’ve never met before. It’s a lot of separating, because if a friend were to say something like “I don’t like this,” to me, I would be deeply wounded but if a random person on the internet says that, I’ll be able to kind of separate it in my brain where it’s fully compartmentalized. I couldn’t care less that they don’t like it, even if I am fascinated by the behavior of telling random people on the internet that you don’t like what they’re doing. It doesn’t affect me emotionally, which is very fortunate. I’m very thankful that it does not affect me emotionally because I know it does for other people. It is really fascinating to watch what people say to other people on the internet.


How’s your fan base? Do you like your fan base?

I love the people that have chosen to follow me for however long. They’re always so supportive. It was really touching for me when I decided to stop doing poetry as much and started doing what I was now interested in, which is comics illustration. They were sharing messages that were like: “we’re so excited for this,”  “can’t wait to see what you do. “We’ve been following you for this, but I love that we get to follow you for something new and see what you’re really interested in.” It was really nice for me to see that kind of support from people that I fully did not know. And then, you know, once in a while you get those weirdos and that’s fun, too.