For more than 12 years, Elizabeth Ernst has created art about the people and entertainers affiliated with the G.E. Circus, a small family owned circus of aging performers. Over the years we’ve seen them pose for the camera in their fanciful outfits, relax backstage playing cards, apply makeup in their dressing room mirrors, and perform for enthusiastic audiences. Through intimate detailed images, we’ve witnessed their joys and fears, as the glory days of the traveling circus began to fade.
In her third solo show at Catherine Edelman Gallery, Ernst takes us into the Shady Grove Nursing Home, located in Clarence, NY, where several of the G.E. Circus performers have retired. Elderly, and suffering from various circus related ailments, many of the G.E. regulars find themselves waiting out their days telling stories about the good old days, substituting facts when their memories fade. But this is no ordinary nursing home. Shady Grove is situated next to a beautiful lake, and has all of the amenities one can ever desire.
Shady Grove introduces us to Jake, a retired chef in the cookhouse, who vows to keep smoking until he can no longer breathe; Lenny, one of the resident caregivers, who was a former trumpet player in the circus band and still serenades his friends in the evening; the clinic, where residents go to see Dr. Stanley, who has been taking care of them for more than 30 years; and Lois, a former showgirl dancer whose beauty is still apparent, even as her body slowly succumbs to old age. At Shady Grove, Elizabeth Ernst’s cast of characters share their remaining years with us, as they reflect, dream, fantasize and embellish their personal histories to staff and visitors. Through their eyes, we experience the difficulties and richness of circus life, as it continues to change and evolve.
Elizabeth Ernst is a professor emeritus at Columbia College Chicago, where she taught for 25 years. She is the recipient of numerous Illinois Arts Council Fellowships in Photography, and two Faculty Development Grants from Columbia College. Her work has been exhibited nationally and was recently featured at the Mimi and Ian Rolland Art Center, University of Saint Francis, Fort Wayne, IN. Elizabeth Ernst lives and works in Chicago.