Elsner was born on a ranch in southern Idaho which inspired his work, as seen in his many animal pieces, particularly horses and cats. He attended the University of Idaho for two years on an athletic scholarship, taking art classes. After spending two years in the US Navy he went on to graduate from Utah State University in 1957, which was immediately followed by a MFA from Columbia University in 1958. He traveled to Japan many times, the first in 1969 with his wife and daughter, and since then the Japanese aesthetic was evident in all of his work. In Japan he was inspired to stone scrape his work after seeing this treatment on anagama-style wood fired pots. He taught a variety of art classes at Utah State University over a 30-year period.