Elizabeth Ernst’s pieces at Catherine Edelman captivate the same way the circus does, creating layers of illusion. Her miniature installation, G.E. Circus, consists of performers made of Sculpey painted white and arranged on a table with a few tiny props she made herself. Ernst has also taken black-and-white photographs of the figures, lightly painted over them, and written life stories for her “characters,” printed in wall texts; other photographs of the performers place them in miniature sets she created, and there are four collages that include painted-over photos. On the black-and-white photographs she sometimes paints colorful details, adding red lipstick and a blue dress to Audrey Margaret Kelly, for instance. Mostly she just adds a subtle fleshiness, however–a casual glance might fool you into thinking these people were real. But in her work no level is any more “real” than any other.

Ernst believes most artists explore the same issues their whole lives. “If you really look at the history of your work,” she says, “you’ll see threads that you can trace from childhood.” For her one thread is her brother, who has cerebral palsy. Though smart, he’s hard of hearing, walks with difficulty, and has always been emotionally younger than his years. “The work that I’m doing now is a result of how people viewed David as a freak,” Ernst says. “Other kids would stare and treat him like he was stupid. When kids made fun of him, I would beat them up.” (Today David, who was not expected to live beyond 20, lives with their mom and plays the stock market.) Ernst’s interest in photography began with David too. Because he liked to take snapshots on family vacations, their dad bought him a whole darkroom kit, but he wasn’t good with “practical details”–he’d make mistakes, like opening photo paper in the light. Ernst felt bad that her father’s gift was going unused, so at 12 she began making and printing photographs herself; before that she’d painted still lifes.

Born in Buffalo, New York, in 1950, Ernst has taught photography at Columbia College for the past 15 years. At the Moore College of Art in Philadelphia she was influenced by experimental photographers such as Joan Redmond and Barbara Blondeau and began collaging images in the darkroom. During grad school at IIT’s Institute of Design, she did a thesis project documenting Pullman, Chicago’s late-19th-century company town, whose history and architectural detail she loved. People gave her keys to their homes and she would stay all day with her view camera, absorbed in the way the home owners’ personalities were revealed in their possessions. “The available light was so beautiful, and there was this very wonderful timeless quality to the spaces, almost as if they were hermetically sealed.”

Feeling burned-out on photography after grad school, Ernst took odd jobs in construction and carpentry in the late 70s. Later she worked as a producer for commercial photographers and for eight years as an architectural photographer herself. Again she enjoyed the quietude of interiors, carefully setting up for her three or four shots. Except for occasional figure sculptures, however, she was making little art for herself. Then, after her father died in 1990, she thought, “On the last day of my life I don’t want to be thinking about the things I wished I had done.” She started teaching at Columbia, in part to get back into making her own work; in her first project she made photo-based sculptures using images she took at the Bohemian National Cemetery, where mourners created little collections of objects in crypts to represent the lives of the departed: flags, Christmas trees, photos, medals.

Ernst has always loved circuses: “I was fascinated that people were paying money to see others that you would now call physically challenged–the pretzel guy who contorts his body, the bearded lady, the smallest woman in the world.” She’d photographed circuses as an undergrad and resumed a decade ago. Her current show had its origin in neck surgery she had a year and a half ago. Recuperating, she felt she was going stir-crazy and started sculpting figures. “After making a whole circus,” she says, she began “thinking about who these people were, and wanted to give them a history.” Oscar (the Elephant Man), the wall text says, is of “above average intelligence” but was “born with the physical appearance of an elephant. . . . [His] parents sold him to the G.E. Circus when he was eight.” Ernst says that in the circus world she’s created, “The freaks think they’re the norm because there’s so many of them. They’ve discovered a sense of belonging.”

Elizabeth Ernst

Where: Catherine Edelman, 300 W. Superior

When: Through February 26

Info: 312-266 2350

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/A. Jackson.