Born in Brazil, little is known about John Ernst until his years performing as an acrobatic clown and trapeze artist for the Ringling Bros, Barnum & Bailey Circus during the late 1930's. It is written that he performed with Burt Lancaster as part of a two man acrobatic team. Drafted during the second World War, Ernst served three years overseas. Arriving in Woodstock in 1947, he attended the Art Students League under the G.I. Bill. There he studied with Fletcher Martin and met his future wife, the poet Pearl Bond while she was modeling there.
Exhibiting often during his lifetime he was involved and participated in many shows including:
Gallery East, New York City, November 1953
Neil Lovisco Gallery, New York City
The Whitney Museum of Modern Art, in several shows throughout the 1950's
Albany Institute of History and Art, 1965-1966
Provincetown, Cape Cod art Show, 1965-1967
Bard College, 1967
Berkshire Art Association, July 1980
Works of Art Gallery, Saugerties, NY
Highland Park Gallery, Los Angeles
Shell Block Gallery, Woodstock, NY
Maverick Gallery, Woodstock, NY
Ann Leonard Gallery, Woodstock, NY
Mari Gallery, Woodstock, NY
Collector's Studio, Woodstock, NY
Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, NY
Ernst also exhibited and contributed his time to the Woodstock Artist Association for over 20 years. He also received the Yasuo Kuniyoshi Award in 1978. In a review in the Woodstock times, John Fenton says of his work, "His watercolors have a fresh, imaginative, almost naïve quality suggestive of Arthur Dove, George Geotz, and John Marin. It is intensely personal and has a mystic air." In the same newspaper Ernst says of himself, " I'm a self-taught painter in the style of Henry Miller….I disagree with the university concept of art, but not in a vicious way."
Late in life, Ernst fell on very hard times. His serious alcoholism, personal illness, family tragedy, and the loss of his home to a fire compounded his problems. He could often be found on the Woodstock Village Green trading his paintings for drinks or pocket change. Throughout these years he was in and out of jail, the Hudson River Psychiatric Center, and the County Poor House. He died on February 15, 1995.
In a brief biographical poem written by his wife Pearl Bond, his early and late years seem to flow together and give grace to the wonderful paintings he created and left behind.
The circus performer waits
in the wings the daring young man
has aged his body gnarled & thin
his movements still listen
to a remembered music,
he doesn't complete anything
afraid he'll miss his cue,
he doesn't close the lid on the coffee
jar. he lets the faucet dribble,
if he could he'd wear one shoe
any gesture after the first one
isn't worth repeating
unless it's a dignified bow.
stage presence replaced his wits
he has a routine of gestures clowns
when the coffee jar falls from the lid,
turns his pockets inside out
for money to pay the water bill.
His life is "nothing now" after comedy
on high wires he used to play
a drunk who lost his trousers
balancing on a trapeze,
flying netless over rhinestone
glare & always the hoop-la music
timing his innermost flow.