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Elizabeth Ernst

Elizabeth Ernst
(b. 1950, Buffalo, NY) is clearly interested in issues of visible difference—an interest with a deeply personal origin. Her mixed-media work, such as “The G. E. Circus,” is filled with half-human creatures and all manner of “freaks.” In it, Ernst tackles the complicated emotions of being the younger sister of a brother born in 1948 with cerebral palsy.
Bird Lady
Hand-Painted Photograph, 21” x 18”
2002
The Elephant Man
Hand-Painted Photograph, 16” x 12”
1999
BIO
Elizabeth Ernst (b. 1950, Buffalo, NY) is clearly interested in issues of visible difference—an interest with a deeply personal origin. Her mixed-media work, such as “The G. E. Circus,” is filled with half-human creatures and all manner of “freaks.” In it, Ernst tackles the complicated emotions of being the younger sister of a brother born in 1948 with cerebral palsy. She grew up as his protector, witnessing his torment by other children and later his struggle to navigate the adult world. Their relationship, with the numerous issues it involves (love, guilt, remorse, fear, responsibility), is the backbone of the “Circus,” a handmade circus of characters who live in a fictitious world where they are the stars—where they are the norm.


THE ART
“The Elephant Man” and “Bird Lady” are both part of “The G. E. Circus,” which combines Ernst’s skill at photographic storytelling with her love of sculpture. Some aspects are based on the considerable history of communities formed by disabled people within the shelter of the circus. Each circus figure is made out of oven-hardened clay, after which a “portrait” photograph is made of the character. The cast includes a juggler, acrobats, clowns, and strange human-like animals. Photographs are printed on sensitized linen paper, mounted to board, and finally hand-painted. Each “portrait” includes a brief “biography” giving us insight into their inner lives. In Ernst’s circus, animals control their handlers, freaks are the standard, and cages are obsolete.


Ernst’s relationship with disability has continued to evolve through her own experience of lupus, as well as from being in a long-term relationship with a person with a disability. Ernst’s empathy, humor, and rigorous lack of sentimentality arise from understanding disability from the inside.