Studio Visit: Liz Ensz

Not many artists that I know personally are making much (if any) money off of their work. We all have other day or night jobs teaching, art handling, or working in the service industry. We work hard throughout the year so that we can pay rent and bills and then hopefully take some time off, leave the city, have adventures, and work on our art. I met up with Liz Ensz in her studio at the end of July before she did just that. For a few weeks in August, she was in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan at the Visitor Center, an artist residency that she runs with Margaret Coleman, Amy Joy Hosterman, Josh Hosterman, and James Lentz. Next up, she’ll be spending a month at Salem Art Works in New York where she’ll get to do an iron pour, then head to Providence, Rhode Island for an artist talk and a metal casting workshop hosted by The Steel Yard. She’ll stop by Tyler University and the Maryland Institute College of Art to give some artist lectures before going to Oregon for another month-long residency at PLAYA and then finally go to the Oregon College of Art and Craft for some workshops. I’m glad I was able to visit her studio before all this and look forward to seeing what happens along her travels.

Liz Ensz is a very skilled artist. I don’t just mean that she is a “good” artist but that she utilizes a lot of technical skills in her making process. She makes casts, does iron pours, constructs things out of a variety of materials, makes cyanotype prints, draws, sews, weaves, and taught herself how to use a digital Jacquard loom. In our visit she explained, “I need to make things happen, and not everything can be a picture … my ideas didn’t make sense as drawings.” While some may shy away from learning a challenging new technique, Liz dives right in. I remember seeing her in the weaving studio at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago when she was a graduate student in the Fiber and Material Studies Department. As a grad student, she was able to access the Jacquard loom and, without taking a class to learn how to use the loom, she started weaving on it, learning through trial and error. I’m impressed by her dedication to learning new skills, and beyond that, her craftsmanship in these techniques.

thank you bag

At the time that I saw her using the loom at school, she was weaving images of old used tires. Rubber tires are a material that doesn’t break down or decompose, so it’s unknown what will happen to them in the future, presumably they’ll just last forever. They’re stored in stacks that from above make a herringbone pattern. I nitially, I wondered about her choice to weave this image – why this picture of tires? what did weaving have to do with old tires or trash? Through talking to her about the ideas she explores in the rest of her work and spending some time with the fabric, I started to see a lot more in the cloth.

As a woven image, the tires become a repeat-pattern design, perfect for a textile. In her studio, she had one piece of the woven fabric, probably about two to three yards long, and another shorter test piece. Liz had turned the woven tire image into a repeatable pattern, so that it became an ongoing image, repeated over and over again in woven cloth without a visual disruption. The image also has somewhat of a self-referential trompe l’oeil effect that I had not considered before. “Fooling people with beauty has always been really important to me … and that’s sort of my interest in decorative art too.” From a distance, the fabric seems to simply have a pattern of a macro-view of a woven structure on it. Upon closer investigation though, we discover the images of the tires woven into the cloth itself, neatly bringing the visual image and the structure of the image together and raising questions about labor, manufacture, and overabundance.

Discussing Liz’s work, we could not help but come to these topics as they permeate throughout her practic e . Hanging on another wall in the studio were other Jacquard weavings Liz has made of piles of trash items. Like the tires, from afar they appear to be fabric swatches with indiscernible patterns that are reminiscent of upholstery fabric. If you let your eyes linger on the fabric though, you can start to pick out the pull tab of an aluminum can in the center of one of the weavings and piles of crushed cans or mashed cars emerge out of the cloth. Weaving, Liz pointed out, is an additive process. The cloth builds as one weft thread after another is interlaced with the warp. She draws a connection between this process and how material waste builds and accumulates in piles around the world.

Liz Ensz Studio

We talked about trash a lot. How or why something comes to be considered trash, and what trash items connote about individuals and our culture in general. Liz’s interest in trash started when she was younger and would go scrapping with brother. “We’d wake up at like three in the morning and then go cruise alleys in Minneapolis for radiators and bed frames and file cabinets or whatever and then bring it to the scrap yard.” It was a way for her to connect with her much older brother and also make some extra cash. She was looking back on this right before starting graduate school and then made it her task to learn as much as she could about working with metal while there.

Recently, Liz has been making work using plastic grocery bags. Plastic bags are super abundant. We’ve all seen them constantly flying through the streets and under underpasses, smushed by cars, and caught in tree branches. She collects them on the walk between her apartment and her studio. Trash like this is all around us, so much so that I think many of us stop really seeing it, it’s just a part of the landscape of the city. Liz has been using the trash bags to make cyanotype prints and has made a series of “bag flags”. This work transforms the material of trash. It makes the every-day refuse beautiful and calls our attention to the typically unconsidered objects. The work begins to feel individual and almost as if each piece almost has its own personality. For Liz, the trash is personal and becomes a metaphor for how people are treated – disposable and often overlooked. “I always think that the shitty way we treat objects is similar to the shitty way we treat people. The developed culture of disposability can’t be good for how we treat each other.”


In a similar way to Liz’s weavings, the beauty of the pieces draws in viewers in a subtle and enticing way, but then gives them something more to think about. The work isn’t shouting at you, but it still has a lot to say. Our conversation in Liz’s studio touched onmaterial, waste, manufacturing, American history, politics, capitalism, globalization, and personal histories. All of these things are present in the work because Liz is thinking about them and researching all the time. Ask her about pennies, another thing many of us often overlook, and she’ll explain that starting in 1983, pennies stopped being produced from 100% copper and that those made in the post-Reagan era are ninety-seven percent zinc. She compares that to a zinc washer that is sold for six cents at a hardware store, subtly pointing out how you’re actually getting a better deal if you use a post-Reagan penny as a washer instead, as well as giving it more value as an object. The research and connections come out in her work through her exploration and investigation of materials.

Liz described a picture of herself at an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. when she was nineteen: “I have a cardboard skull mask on and I’m holding a sign in the shape of a bomb that says, ‘Who elected this fucker?’.” She explained that though not all of her work falls under the umbrella of fiber art, it abstracts off of the ideas of system-based textile processes, the global history of these processes, and their histories as art forms. A part of it for her, is a protest against other forms of what she sees as male-dominated art. Through her work, she’s exploring the complexities of the systems all around us, whether they are the global manufacturing systems or the hierarchy with in the art world, and pushing back against them. “It’s always a protest … I’ll always be making flags.” In the same way, that a flag always has something to communicate, Liz’s work is taking a stance, encouraging viewers to look around and reconsider what they may not have seen.