The Artist and Her Symbols (Part 1)

The first time a bird appeared in my work was in 2005. I had just finished college and I had moved back to the Mississippi Delta, where the horizon has no end across the flat land. One day while observing the blue light of the sky, I felt such a feeling of comfort. The feeling captivated me so, that I wanted to reproduce it in my paintings. But, no matter how I tried, the paint just wouldn’t glow like the sky. It always turned out muted, muddy, and lacking depth. So I decided that the only way to recreate that feeling of calming blue was to actually reproduce the light itself. . . with a light fixture and colored plexiglass.

A photo is shown of a two-lane road running toward the horizon of the flat land of the Mississippi Delta. The sky glows in many shades of blue.
The Mississippi Delta


With my father’s help, I constructed a three-dimensional box in the shape of a window with a ledge. I ordered blue plexiglass from a plastic supplier in Manhattan and used it to line the panes, and I mounted a hidden light fixture inside the box. Finally I had achieved the reproduction of this color from the sky. But it needed something else, a lagniappe – a little something extra.

At the time I routinely shopped at yard sales with my mother, picking up interesting odds and ends, and at some point I bought a little bird sculpture. Finally I had a use for it. It was the perfect size to rest on the window’s ledge. But I knew it wasn’t just any bird who had flown in to sit on the windowsill. No, this bird had found his way through the window from the other side and had found freedom. So I designed a cutout of a cage and placed it on the inner side of the window pane, creating a shadow of the cage from which it had escaped. And now it meant so much more.

A freestanding window rests on a table. It is a light box that looks like a window, and the panes are glowing blue. A small bird sculpture rests on the ledge.
Two views of the “Freebird” light sculpture by Elizabeth Barenis, circa 2005.

Not only had I finally recreated the glowing blue light, but also the bird as a symbol in my work was born. And it happened during a time in my life when I was preparing to take a decisive step toward my path as an artist, to spread my wings. The themes of freedom and transcendence had perched upon me and I hearkened their song for future work to come.



“birds are free from the cage

cage is empty from the birds

where have you flown from

to be so happy

I can smell eternity

in your songs”

-Rumi (trans. Nader Khalili)



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