Tucked away on a Murphysboro side street is a historic home inhabited by an innovator with an eye toward the future. Rachel Malcolm Ensor is a self-proclaimed “modernist” with rich educational and professional backgrounds as diverse as the eclectic collages hanging in her Burton Studio School for the Visual Arts.
She speaks excitedly about influencing young children to pick up paintbrushes and simply create something from their imagination, which they do often within Ensor’s art education programs. Ensor recently allowed Life & Style into her world, where she thrives on a combination of artistic independence and self-trust. The results speak for themselves.
You obviously have accrued a great deal of art education. How fulfilling is it for you to be able to share that knowledge through your school?
This is my dream to help a community learn about art and the options that art-making provides for lifelong happiness. I love talking about art and sharing my knowledge with others. It’s so fun to see the wheels start to turn and critical thinking skills begin to develop!
You have talked about helping people find their own visual voice. How exactly do you do that?
Typically, art teachers want students to draw from a still life and basically have all of the drawings in the class look the same. I think it is a waste of time to want students to lose their natural style that originates from the way they view things. So, we may do a still life in class, but students are encouraged to use their own interpretive skills. That doesn’t mean that the drawings would be inaccurate, but very individualistic. We focus on what is working for a student.
What art tools, materials and techniques do you use in your work?
Everything! I am a mixed media artist. I don’t limit myself in any way. I really enjoy using utilitarian material, trash and lots of recycled paper in my work. I enjoy the repurposing of an item in a different sphere. Packaging is great to use, particularly if the surface is going to give me a color and texture that I can’t create with paint or marker. I save scraps of color and texture all the time to use in collage, which is the medium I am currently working. So, taking mundane objects and using them in a high art form, such as mixed media or painting, is fulfilling.
Can you describe your artistic process? How does an idea start, and what is the process from the start to the final production of the item?
At this point in my artistic career, I don’t think of an idea. I start working, and the idea reveals itself. I don’t do a lot of planning because my work is about trusting myself to make the necessary marks for a cohesive composition. I allow myself to respond to what is happening. I don’t think much about it. But, you have to understand that I have years of making art and learning about materials, so I have an extensive breadth of knowledge when it comes to art making; that, coupled with the fact that I trust myself when it comes to making compositional decisions.
Why do you create art?
I enjoy making art even when it doesn’t work.
What or whom do you draw from for inspiration?
My work is a compilation of my acquired knowledge from my academic studies, which are African writing systems and the transmigration of them to North and South America and how they are embedded in American culture.
How do you improve your craft? Do you attend seminars or follow the work of other artists?
I look at many artworks and what artists are doing, and I study textiles and African Diaspora material culture.
Have you created a piece that you are most proud of?
I am enjoying my current collage work because it is just flowing out of me like a song. And I am proud that my academic study is the major foundation for the aesthetics of my artwork. It gives me a great deal of unity and peace because being both an academic and an artist can feel really bifurcated. They have both come together, and I am very happy with their union.
What has been the key to being able to successfully produce quality art for as long as you have?
I received an excellent art foundation with my BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute. I had excellent professors, who were hard but supportive. That base on which my career started gave me stamina to keep making art. One professor in particular, Lester Goldman, taught me to trust myself and take chances. I wasn’t much of a chance taker. His exact words were, “Rachel, you are such a good girl all of the time. You need to trust yourself to make some bad art because in the end it will help you get where you need to go — art that works.” Hence, trusting myself has been the secret.