The Artist and Her Symbols (Part 2)

Since I created the “Freebird” window sculpture in 2005, the bird has been a recurring symbol in my three-dimensional work. In 2012 while I was working full time as a medical biller in Little Rock, I rarely found time to make art. But a contest from the art museum there caught my interest. It was titled “Toys Designed by Artists,” and I felt the call to meet the challenge. Not only did I want to design a toy, I wanted to design an interactive piece of art.

I rummaged through my closet, visited local thrift stores, and sat quietly on the couch looking up at the ceiling. Finally an idea came to me. One of the objects I scavenged was a Jack-and-Jill themed music box. I took it apart and completely reinvented it with paint, feathers, and a new musical movement in the tune of “The Shadow of Your Smile.” The result was a “bird” whose rotating wings appear to move up and down as shadows cast against the pages of a book.

A white sculpture in the shape of an open book with blank pages stands on a base. In front of the book is a carving of a white bird figure surrounding by feathers beneath it. A light shines on the sculpture and casts a shadow of the birds wings against the blank pages of the book. A miniature metal cage adorns the bottom of the sculpture.
“Freebird: The Shadow of Your Smile” interactive art piece by Elizabeth Barenis

The story is that of transcendence. The spirit of the bird transcends the feathers, the earthly existence, leaving only a shadow. That is to say, somewhere between happy and sad, between the positive and negative, is a moment of eternity. That moment lives somewhere between your smile and the shadow of your smile.

Click below to see the video of the music box:


“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –

That perches in the soul –

And sings a tune without words –

And never stops – at all – “

-Emily Dickinson


Years later, in 2020, I had the opportunity to assist installation artist Jason Hackenwerth with teaching his class at Eckerd College. In the process, the symbol of the bird as transcendence reappeared on a larger scale. Below is the installation I created for one of the projects.

An art installation by Elizabeth Barenis is shown. Three large, white bird silhouettes are mounted against an eight-foot-tall white fabric scroll. A shadow is cast from a box in the foreground, creating what appears to be bars of a cage, on the left half of the scroll. From left to right, the bird's wings rise incrementally until the bird on the right has its wings raised and the feathers have fallen off as it seems to be flying off the scroll. There is a small cage on top of the box, and its door is open with only a white feather inside.
“Freebird Transformation” art installation by Elizabeth Barenis

A close-up view of the little bird cage is shown. Its door is open and inside rests a single white feather.


“Art is the highest form of hope.”

-Gerhard Richter




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