In 1997, Elizabeth Ernst walked away from a successful career in the advertising world to focus attention on her own art, making photographs at various venues including the circus museum in Baraboo, WI, Coney Island before it opened for the season, and random carnivals that set up tents in small Midwestern towns. Consumed by the circus since an early age, her studio was overflowing with Schoenhut clowns, tattered dolls, antique stuffed animals and cases of her own photographs. Four years later, after making numerous pieces about circus life which addressed issues of celebration, loneliness and confinement, Ernst decided to design, fabricate and direct her own circus. 

Elizabeth Ernst is a tenured Associate Professor in the photography department at Columbia College Chicago.




combines her love of photographic story-telling with her love of sculpture. By modeling each figure out of Sculpey (which is then baked in an oven to harden) specifically to be photo-graphed, Ernst's imagination unfolds and a cast of characters emerge: a juggler, fat lady, acrobat, a host of clowns and strange human-like animals. Once sculpted, Ernst carefully photographs each scene with a view camera and then prints on sensitized linen paper, mounts the paper to board, and finally collages and paints with acrylic. In her arena, animals control their handlers, freaks are the norm and cages are obsolete. The final result is an imagined world created by an artist who mixes social issues with the theater of the absurd to comment on the circus as we know it today.




Orphan Girl (2007)




The Final Act (2007)




Gator Girl (2006)




Loretta the once Beautiful (2006)




Wheel of Death (2006)





Circus Toys (2005)




One Sings and the Other Doesn't (2005)




Elephant Ride (2005)




Evalyn and Her Trick Monkey (2004)




Waiting for the Show (2004)




It Took Her Four Hours to Get Ready

for Her Performances (2004)



Letters from Home (2004)




Oscar the Elephant Man and His Sidekick Luigi (2004)




Strange Girls (2004)




Tough Crowd (2004)



Audery Margaret Kelly (2004)




The Beautiful Audery (2004)




Kitty Merkel (2004)






Larry Redinski (2004)





Knuckles [aka Billy Dawson] (2004)



Karl Zucchini (2004)



Evelyn Nichols (2004)



Ruthie Miller (2004)




Oscar [The Elephant Man] (2004)




Alive Erma and Her Dead Fish (2004)




Marvo the Mystic (2003)




Jolly Dixie (2003)




Five years later, Ernst presents Smoke & Mirrors, a continuation of her deep commitment to the people who work in the circus.  In her newest works, Ernst photo-graphs figures she created from clay and scarp metal, and combines them with images she took at traveling circuses, going behind the tents an inside the trailers to reveal the lives behind the faces who entertain the public.

Whether real or imagined, Elizabeth Ernst creates a world which relies on disbelief and suspended reality.  Behind the make-up and costumes are real people whose lives often belie the people they portray.  it is this duality - the public persona vs the private persona - that Smoke & Mirrors examines, reminding us that people usually reveal what they want us to know, and often the truth lies elsewhere.





Lillian's Dressing Room (2009)




Concession Stand (2008)




Madame X Fortune Teller (2009)





Dickie the Bird Boy (2008)





Rose (2010)





Sideshow Performer (2010)




The Outside Talker (2009)





Knuckles and Lillian (2010)





Stella By Starlight (2010)




Lost and Found (2008)




Clown Alley (2010)





After the Card Game (2010)




The Second Show, Elmer. OK (2010)




Photomatic (2010)


  Image Courtsey of  Elizabeth Ernst Edelman Gallery ©copyright All rights reserved


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