Artist Spotlight: Mark Enslin

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A column curated by staff of the Urbana Public Arts Program

Composer, performer, activist and teacher, Mark Enslin studied music at Webster College and has a doctorate in music composition from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the University of Illinois. Mark taught in Unit One, a living/learning program, offering courses such as Music in Protest, the Art of Acting as Audience, and the Performers Workshop Ensemble. Enslin has held teaching residencies at the Federal University of Bahia in Brazil and the Youth Factory for Alternative Culture in Seoul, South Korea. He is a Founder and Instructor in the School for Designing a Society in Urbana.

Jacob Barton performing a piece Mark wrote for him for one-person band called “Safety Nets II.”

For this issue, Public Arts Intern Samantha Schrage met with Mark to learn more about his artistic process.

Tell me a little about yourself and your past creative work.

I studied music composition in school, first in Webster Groves, Missouri, and then at Illinois, but have long been interested in creative work in other media, and in political action. To me creation is closely associated with experimenting, with asking “What if …?,” with thinking critically, resisting an oppressive status quo, envisioning a better world. I’ve tried to do this on an intimate scale, for instance with a guitar piece that, instead of the standard fingering, asks the player to mute the strings with a finger-spelled poem. It takes off from a line in the song “Black is the Color”—“I love the ground whereon s/he goes”—and imagines following the logic of that sentiment to the horizon. How would we then treat that ground?

Last summer, participants in a program I co-facilitated in West Virginia, called “Desire and Design, Clowning and Care,” made a clowning excursion to a boarding school for wards of the state. In our classes, we had been using concepts from design, performance and the arts to help envision alternatives to the current system. But our visit to the boarding school felt superficial and inadequate. Some of us were overwhelmed by the stories the young people told. We decided to return the next week to offer them a performance in a decentralized form called “Cones of Intimacy”—each of us alone or in groups devised a story or game or interaction for two to four people under a decorated umbrella. The audience of students and staff moved from umbrella to umbrella in the twilight air. Both their group and ours felt the interactions this time were more meaningful—that each of us amid our dreams and frustrations felt more “seen” by the other.

From a “Cones of Intimacy” event at the School for Designing a Society in the summer of 2016. Photo credit for these three photos to Colten Jackson.

What inspires you as an artist?

As an artist I’m inspired by people, projects, creations, groups, movements, artists, activists, thinkers, listeners who find a way to combine action, awareness, insight, care, formulation, DIY, drawing new distinctions, making new connections, crossing thresholds of personal, communal and public, overcoming an obstacle, meeting people’s needs, leveling differences of power.

What do you hope your work inspires in others?

Curiosity, thinking twice, resolve to engage in creative social action.

Tell me a little about your artistic process. How do you make your work?

My composing process includes gathering a handful of odd ideas that might sustain a whole project, inventing a writing system for it, pursuing false starts, weathering a period of feeling the project will fail some external standard of worth, and at some point figuring out the statement the piece wishes to make, and in which social discourse it wishes to make it—the desired consequences of the project—and how I can help that statement emerge.

What can we expect from you next as an artist?

Look for performances in central Illinois of a play called GloHeart: a Displaced Lullaby, co-written with Susan Parenti and based on a book by Faranak Miraftab. It’s an attempt to bear witness to the stories of migrant workers and spark a discussion that will transform the current damaging, divide-and-conquer discourse about immigration.

Where can we see more of your work?

A few videos of performances (including the guitar piece) can be found at, audio at, and an article about listening at


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