1934 - 2005

Joe Light

Memphis, Tennessee
About

In 1960 I was in prison. I went to hear a preacher, and there was this certain thing he said. It made sense to me. It was the first time a preacher ever made good sense to me. It was the Old Testament. And I went back to my cell and I just sit and was thinking about it. And I heard this voice. That's what I want the world to know, that I heard this voice and I believe what it said. It was like a whisper at first. I didn't know what it said. I wasn't listening at it. I started listening and I thought it was a ventriloquist throwing his voice in the cell. The guard came by and I told him about the ventriloquist. They didn't pay me any attention. I went to singing trying to drown out the voice.

I was thinking I'm losing my mind or the devil is bothering me. I heard a lot from my family about the devil having so much power. They used to carry me to church, and the preacher talked all about the devil, that the devil had almost as much power as God. My mother used to tell me a lot about Jesus Christ. She would say Jesus Christ was the devil. She wouldn't say anything like that in front of my daddy because he was a Baptist. I wouldn't pay too much attention to her.

The next time I heard the voice, I said, "Well, let me hear what it's saying." The first thing he told me was, "I'm God." I thought that I was cracking up. I said, "If you're God, prove it." He said, "Step up to the cell door and I'm going to let a bird land on that window sill, and you take control of him. Tell it what to do and it will do it." And sure enough the bird landed on it.

My early life was totally a wreck. But some positive things have happened and made me change. That bird is proof to me that there is a God. I should have known that before, but I was so ignorant and in the dark. That bird led me to my religion, Judaism. That bird on that man's head is like the spirit of God. I felt the presence of God following me regularly.

I was talking against the teaching of the New Testament in jail. The people in jail listened to me, and certain things I was saying they were taking heed to. Some of them were getting their freedom and spreading certain messages I was giving to them that would help defeat Christianity. I'm not against Christian people, I'm just against what they do with Christianity. A lot of Christians know what's going on within Christianity.

Indians and colored people was forced to live by the New Testament in slavery. Before the Europeans came to this country, the Indians worshiped the Great Spirit, which was God. In Africa, before they knew about Jesus Christ, they worshiped the same God as the Old Testament God. They made them believe in the white man's religion to gain control over other people with different nationalities. Europeans always wanted to rule the world. The New Testament, if you read it, gives the Europeans advantages to rule over other peoples if you believe in it. Europeans was really atheist people. They didn't believe in a true God. They invented this Jesus Christ who is not God. With Christianity they pretend to worship the true God, but Jesus Christ is an idle God.

They took me out of jail and put me in a mental institution. They figured nothing he going to say in the mental institution would mean nothing to nobody anyway. They knew the people's minds was so messed up that I wouldn't be heard, the people wouldn't pay no attention.

I tell people God came for me. God converted me. I didn't know nothing about Judaism. I didn't even know I was a-living by the Old Testament. God did that himself.

I am not a Jew. I live by the Old Testament and follow the same faith that all Jews are supposed to follow. Jews are supposed to live by it, but a lot of them don't. Some people say, "You're a black Jew." I say, "No, I'm not a black Jew. I live by the same faith in God and belief in God the Jews are supposed to have." I saw a Jew on TV who said he became a Christian because it was the only way he could get advantages for himself in this country. I don't want to live life if I got to give up my pride and give up what I believe in. Life would be meaningless to me if I got to give in to something I don't believe in. I wouldn't get nothing out of life.

People have lightened up on me about the Old Testament, but I have had a hard time. I hate to put pressure on my children and family because of that. But here I am a black man, which is kind of like a negative thing in Memphis. I don't mean nobody no harm by my beliefs. I don't want to knock on nobody's door about Judaism. I'm just here at my house. It's the only place I talk about it. My mother turned me towards Judaism by teaching me against Christianity.

My children tell me now, "Daddy, we got double trouble being Jewish and black both." That's why they think they're having such a hard time. They're right, I guess, but I got faith in God. It's not my choice altogether to be what I am. God converted me to Judaism. I'm battling it out. I'm not worrying about that because it will work out. I'm not going to change my faith, and I can't change the color of my skin. If I could I wouldn't anyway. My wife says Michael Jackson is the only one who can do that.

Emmett Till whistled at a white lady in Mississippi. They beat him up and chained him up and throwed him in a river. Colored people wasn't nothing in the eyes of the white man. They didn't have no rights or nothing. If he did whistle, it wasn't an insult. I don't believe he meant any wrong by it. He was visiting from the North. Courting up North is different. Jack Johnson married a white woman in the North. Emmett Till was used to that. So he whistled at this white woman and died for it. He wasn't nothing but a kid. They never caught his killers. They probably knew who they was but didn't try to find them. That shows the kind of disrespect for colored people that the white man has. I put down about Emmett Till in a letter I wrote to President Kennedy. I brought Emmett Till into it because I figured it would get Kennedy's attention. I sent quite a few letters to him. I told him in a letter that when I get out of prison I plan to marry his wife. "If that's what you can get away with doing to Emmett Till," I was saying, "what you going to do to me?" They throwed me in a mental institution.

Writing them letters, that's the only way I figured I could get their attention so I could explain what God wanted of people. Maybe I went about it the wrong way. I got attention all right, but not the way I planned it.

I started right out of prison in '66. Wherever I went, I'd go in five-and ten-cent stores that sells chalk and I'd write on sidewalks and underneath tunnels and overpasses, on the concrete walls with the chalk, certain messages. Messages that God wanted me to write. It was all about the Old Testament.

I wrote letters to my peoples, and also to strangers whose addresses I'd get from the newspapers. I'd write all over the envelopes, not on the inside, never wrote letters on the inside. I wrote about God. I wrote on the outside of the envelope so the mailman or anybody sharing a mailbox or who picked up the letter could read it. That way I could spread the word faster.

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About 1971 I started to put the signs on the fence of my house. The shutters were did in 1976. The first river I painted was on the shutter. A ship was tied up in the river. The river is hope. Back in prison I was sending notes out by flushing them in the commode in plastic bottles. I figured they would get to the river and somebody might pick them up. I guess I sent out hundreds of them. I was locked up six years straight. I sent notes out of the mental institution, too. I was begging for help. I was begging that someone would listen to me.

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A hobo was on the shutter, too, and a flower and a bee. I did a lot of painting, too, clowns and things, just to amuse myself. Long time before that I had drew some pictures and sold to restaurants. One of the clown pictures got sold to this man passing through the neighborhood—hitchhiking by, I guess. He saw it up on the porch and asked if he could buy it. I painted ghost figures on the chimney to scare the kids away. It stopped them from coming over in my yard.

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A lot of my art comes from my imagination. Painted from feeling. But some of it is real special for me. Hobo and Birdman are my reality. It has to do with my own life. The mountains and rivers and flowers, those are special. See, I felt at one time that I didn't have no friends, nobody on my side. Nobody. My mother and father had turned against me. I came up with this hobo, searching for some relationship with people. Lonely person. That's why you see that hobo walking by himself, in isolation. They say my great-granddaddy on my mother's side was a full-blooded Indian, worked on the railroad. Daddy's side had white blood in it. I can make a hobo any color. Hobo is me: red, white, black, yellow. I'm trying to skip by racism.

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I like to attach certain things to my pictures. I see something and I'm pulled to it and want to put it on the pictures. Placemats, toys, reflectors, roots. Things I find in the flea market. I get a feeling from some of them things. I call it "attachment art."

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The roots was one of my first art. Back when I moved to Looney Street, about in the middle seventies, I used to go over to the water and find pieces of trees—roots, branches—that reminded me of something, and I would make something out of it. Paint it, put it in the yard. The yard was full of that back then. People ask me questions, like why I make my art, like it's so I can heal or if I'm psychic. I tell them I don't believe in none of that. I believe you got to have faith in God. I believe God heals, God knows. Whatever happens is the will of God. People believe in witchcraft and that old voodoo stuff, but I don't. I don't argue against them because I found out you get into a lot of trouble trying to explain things to people.

Mother did some natural healing, but a lot of people did that. She would use herbs and things on me when I was sick. I had something with garlic and something around my neck. I can't remember what it was for. I hardly ever went to the doctor. Just went once, when I had a nail in my foot. Other sicknesses Mother took care of. She would use hog hoofs, chicken manure, cow manure, castor oil, sassafras tea. She made a tea out of hog hoofs. Sardines was for mumps. We used a lot of remedies back in those times.

I had a wife and a son and daughter back in my early life, but none of that worked out. I was too young and too wild for it then. Then when I was in my thirties I got to thinking it was time to find another wife. I was living on Louisa Street in a shotgun house by myself. I had been without a wife—or let me put it like this: a decent girlfriend—for thirteen years. It came to me: I left all my furniture and clothes and belongings, just left it in the house, and just left out, moving to search for a wife. Started hitchhiking, went to Palestine, Arkansas. It's a little old place; they called it a town but it wasn't but about two stores. I asked these people if I could sleep in this broken-down car in their yard, and they told me they knew a place I could spend the night. They took me to this man's house, and I spent the night there. I met his daughter Rosie Lee, and we talked, and I got her address.

Then I went to Little Rock and stayed at a hotel and was steadily searching for a wife. I got some ladies' addresses there. Next place was Oklahoma. Got a job, met a couple of Indian women, couple of colored women, one white woman; got their addresses. Went on to Topeka, Kansas; met a white lady and a couple of colored ladies; got their addresses. Went to St. Louis, met a couple of colored ladies. Went back to Dyersburg, Tennessee. I knew a lot of ladies there, it being my hometown. My daddy was there and set a trap for me. I got angry about it, started speaking out, got locked up again—this time for two years.

I was turned out in '68. When I got out I went back down to Palestine. I had been writing to Rosie Lee. We dated a while, went to theaters and things. Me and her got married in September of '68.

I courted a lot of them, probably about three hundred, looking for the right one. Rosie Lee was the first one I saw, and it's funny that she turned out to be the right one. Me and Rosie Lee have had eight children together—Ceandredel, Josephina, the twins Hosea and Mosea, Rebekah, Rachel, Daniel, and Elijah. They're pretty good children.

Things ain't been as good as they could have been lately. I lost my house to the finance company 'cause of three months payments I got behind. I been in that house twenty-five years. I planned to die in that house. The doctor told me that my diabetes might make me blind, so I learned how to go around the whole house, inside and out, blind with a cane. They took the house away from me and painted over everything, all my paintings. Seems to me like every time I start to get respect for my art something bad comes along to take my spirit back down. Rosie Lee thinks it is a conspiracy. But whatever happens is, I believe, the will of God. Of course, if it's his will to make things get a little better, I won't mind.

Taken from interviews with Joe Light by William Arnett in 1994, 1995, and 2001.

My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South

My Soul Has Grown Deep: Black Art from the American South

A new consideration of extraordinary art created by self-taught Black artists during the mid-20th century​. My Soul Has Grown Deep considers the art-historical significance of self-taught Black artists, many working under conditions of poverty and isolation, in the American South. It features paintings and drawings, mixed-media and sculptural works, and quilts, including pieces ranging from the pioneering paintings of Thornton Dial (1928–2016) to the renowned quilts made in Gee’s Bend, Alabama.

Revelations: Art from the African American South

Revelations: Art from the African American South

While the artists featured in this groundbreaking catalog were born in the Jim Crow period of institutionalized racism, their works embody the promise and attainment of freedom in the modern Civil Rights era and address some of the most profound and persistent issues in American society, including race, class, gender, and spirituality. Originally created as expressions of individual identity and communal solidarity, these eloquent objects are powerful testaments to the continuity and survival of African American culture. This gorgeous book features lush illustrations of works by artists such as Thornton Dial, Bessie Harvey, Purvis Young, and the Gee's Bend quilters--including Gearldine Westbrook, Jessie T. Pettway, and more--and presents a series of insightful essays.

Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 2

Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.
Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art, Vol. 1

The African American culture of the South has produced many of the twentieth century’s most innovative art forms. Widely appreciated for its music—from the blues and jazz, to gospel, soul, rock ‘n’ roll—the region has also played host to a less visible but equally important visual art tradition.

Revelations: Art from the African American South

Revelations: Art from the African American South

de Young Museum
June 3, 2017 to April 1, 2018

"Revelations: Art from the African American South" celebrates the debut of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco major acquisition from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation in Atlanta of 62 works by contemporary African American artists from the Southern United States.

Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South

Michael C. Carlos Museum at City Hall East
June 29 - November 3, 1996
"Souls Grown Deep: African-American Vernacular Art of the South," a groundbreaking exhibition of over 450 artworks by some 30 contemporary artists, highlighting a significant artistic tradition that has risen in concert with the Civil Rights Movement. This exhibition presents an art form that is universal in its appeal and currency yet highly individuated in its origins within the African-American South.

"River Deep, Mountain High"

By:
William Arnett

His name is Joe Lewis Light. His parents named him for the African American boxer whose magnificent career was just beginning when Joe Light was born, and who later became a hero for black Americans in the era of Jim Crow. Joe Lewis Light takes his names seriously, as if they were a preordained responsibility. His surname can denote spiritual illumination. And in this zone of symbols, further portents are found in the given names of Light’s parents, Virgie (Virgin) Mary and Hiawatha: Christianity seems to have crossed with the Native American and begot the artist. Light considers himself a fighter against ignorance, jealousy, injustice, hypocrisy, and other human shortcomings. He hopes to provide spiritual guidance for his family, neighborhood, and race. He presents himself as a large beacon–he weighs 280 pounds and stands 6 feet 4 inches—a caution light for blacks in North Memphis, a latter-day black Moses hoping to lead his people to the Promised Land but aware all the while that the original Moses never entered it.

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Joe Light needs to communicate. His God has defined the ideal world, and Light feels compelled to pass along the definition. For more than thirty years, Light has searched for ways to make God comprehensible. First, Light wrote biblical-sounding pronouncements on sidewalks, and on walls beneath expressway bridges. Then he began painting signs in his yard: signs instructing parents to nurture their children as flowers in a garden; signs that complain about sex education in the schools, which Light is convinced turns teenagers into pimps and prostitutes; signs complaining about the lack of support for blacks by other blacks; reprimands to the government for lying to its citizens and mistreating its minorities. The signs are always challenging and sometimes threatening, yet there is another side of Joe Light. His yard is completely enclosed by fences. “I don’t want nobody coming in,” Light explains, but he really doesn’t want anybody going out, either. It is a voluntary self-incarceration. He worries about his eight children when they leave the house for the outside world. He senses that they are safe inside the house and imperiled outside the gate. He knows what lurks out there, so he stays home as much as he can.

Light’s concerns and convictions are not expressed exclusively to audiences on the outside, for many of his most profound observations are directed principally toward himself. Because he has had no human mentor to guide and advise him along his life’s treacherous road, he serves as his own counsel, as a Moses illuminating the way, fighting the adversaries, leading himself toward the Promised Land. He is Moses and Moses’ Hebrew followers; his art offers insight to others while exhorting the maker to improve himself. His signs will not do for Light’s personal journey. (They are offered to the uninitiated.) So Light has compressed his very elaborate worldview and brightly colored paintings on and around his house, paintings that consist of iconic and often autobiographical human and animal figures, or strange glyphs and calligraphy-like symbols, or metaphorical “cartoons.”

Ask Joe Light about any subject, and his answer will eventually become a discourse on his religious views. Long ago, while listening to a prison chaplain reading from the Old Testament, Light decided to convert to Judaism. When he was young, he had always resented his stern, severe father’s Baptist religion, considering it but a stratagem of the false promises made by whites to blacks. The stern, severe, Old Testament God—God the Father—ideally suited Light’s psychological and philosophical desires. At the same time, Light’s art relies heavily on Christian theology and iconography. His paintings are about salvation and personal transformation, imperatives unique to Christianity among Western religions.

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Light uses cruciform flowers and trees to symbolize temptations, often carnal temptation, but also as a preventive reminder of the beguiling words of preachers in pulpits. Light’s rivers, separating the material world (foreground) from the spiritual one (background), suggest baptism as a requisite to enter heaven; Light wants the rebirth without the ritual, and he wants the rebirth in the here and now, not as a shimmering reward available after the end of one’s mortal years. Joe Light, theologically, is not Jewish—he’s the first to concede that—he just does not subscribe to white man’s Christianity. Judaism has served an oppressed and persecuted minority, and Light can relate to that.

For many years, Joe Light made his living selling miscellany each weekend in the flea markets of Memphis. He bought junk for a little bit and tried to move it along for a little bit more. It was not lucrative. Maybe he netted two hundred dollars a month, maybe less. (He also tried selling his paintings but could not interest anyone.) The flea market, however, offered unexpected influences and surrounded Light with society’s kitsch and bric-a-brac, with the de facto pop art of the underclass—plaster statuettes, framed art reproductions, inexpensive household decorations, sports memorabilia, out-of-fashion clothing, comic books and other ephemera, artificial-flower arrangements, and toys of all kinds.

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When the day ended there, Light would come home and watch documentaries, cartoons, and cowboy movies on television. Perhaps it was the Westerns, with their indelible panoramas of Monument Valley that instilled in Light the great American sense of landscape. And when the affective medium was not television, it was old postcards and souvenir photos and placemats. Light’s art was being born then. The array of landscapes, from the tiny to the huge, with their boldly colored skies, mountains, rivers, grass, trees, and flowers, were Light’s visual guides to pioneer survival.

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Then came what Light calls “attachments.” He often affixed flea-market castoffs to his paintings. Each object—a root, a toy, a sign, a clock, or a hubcap, among many examples—was chosen for its ability to fit as a visual symbol into Light’s evolving iconography.

Although Light attempts to lead his audience (and himself) to a state of peaceful, blissful enlightenment, his art and writings are loaded with conflict. Mythologies constantly clash: Christianity versus Judaism, cowboys versus Indians, white versus black, reason versus instinct, oppression versus freedom. Light identifies with the Indian and the Jew. (And the Arab as well. He was jailed at a time when Islam was rising in popularity among dissatisfied blacks, and he has created signs in an invented, Arabic-like script he calls “Abraham’s writing.”) He refuses to take sides in any of these conflicts, instead positioning himself against the human failures he finds in abundance in all races and among all polarized attitudes. His art employs the proselytizing techniques of white Christianity to advance the causes of nonwhites and non-Christians.

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Drawing on his conception of Native Americans, he approaches nature with the respect of a spiritualist and an environmentalist: Light understands that human beings must learn to curb their aggressiveness and greed if they are to live harmoniously on Earth, an Earth he considers autonomous and animistic, possessed of its own will and consciousness. He empathizes with Native Americans, whose dispossession and extermination were underway before the enslavement of Africans in America. Yet Light is also the cowboy. He reflects on the unfeeling, dangerous side of nature, which needs to be understood (a parallel of human nature, of course). The landscape can assume nebulously male and female forms waiting to couple, thus foreshadowing the complex interactions between men and women. Light regards himself as a settler, a pioneer, surrounded by unfriendly territory. The West and the sublime landscapes of Western movies have also invested him with a mixed set of personal mythologies. The cowboy of pop culture tamed and destroyed ecosystems and peoples, while the Indian was a menace and a model of ecologically harmonious existence. From these divided loyalties to divided mythologies, Light has developed a private and personal code of ethics that does not fit any culture’s established rules of order. He is a kind of loner, the star of an old Saturday-morning movie, with a credo of self-defense and self-protection at any cost, and of standing up for truth and honor no matter the consequences. He is convinced of his own righteousness. It justifies the code that Light believes God encrypted in the natural world.

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Many of his landscape paintings exhibit horizontal, jagged dividing lines comprising the tips of grass, the tips of mountains, or the ripples of water. Resembling sound waves or electrocardiograms, or perhaps private polygraph tests or musical scores, they enable Light to conceal his ideas so they will remain with him, in secrecy, but still be available for decoding by others. Light wants to be understood, but only by those worthy of his confidence.  He wants to convey information but does not want personal contact with a very large audience.

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As compared with the American art-historical movement of the 1960s, Light’s particular brand of pop art is unexpectedly sober and serious. Light never pokes fun at the tacky side of American society. He has no artistic or cultural mandate to reconcile it with so-called high art. He never uses art to make an ironic point about material culture. He loves the form of a commercial bottle and a hubcap, and the face of a hero. Low art’s dominant images are icons for those without access to the world of high art. The only connections Light has with the world of high art are its remnants that have made their ways to the flea markets, or those that have come to him diminished by the limitations of his TV screen. 

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Light fashions a religion from this high-to-low fusion. He redeems the bric-a-brac, honors it, and makes it respectable, even holy. And in so doing he devises a universal theology according to Joe Light, with large illustrations (often four feet by eight feet), that guide the viewer toward enlightenment and salvation. He constantly appropriates imagery and ideas from his surroundings. Light often paints over framed reproductions from the flea markets, retaining the imagery of the originals while transforming them into personal statement (such as Play It Again SamAmigo, and Maggie). 

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He paints Old Testament narratives on his house’s walls, but the stories of Adam and Eve banished from Eden, or Lot and his wife fleeing Sodom, become TV’s Flintstones types, Pebbles and Bam Bam. He takes old hit songs from forty-fives and records his own lyrics over them. His revisions often seem straight-forward and gentle:

You are as pure as white on rice,
Sugar and, spice,
And everything nice.
So take my advice
And kiss me twice.

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The song adorned a wall decoration made from a plastic cafeteria tray. Even then, it was more a warning to himself than a paean to a woman’s love. The flowers, the flowing water, the imposing mountains, and other symbolic obstacles and barriers to salvation permeate the tray. Other lyrics are more revealing, as with a recording over a Dean Martin love song:

My father wasn't a good man,
But he did the best he could.
I never understood my father,
But God understood.

If Joe Light had a choice of careers he would be a blues composer and singer—no doubt a psychologically complex one.

In 1987 Lonnie Holley decided he wanted to meet other southern African American artists, and he visited Joe Light. Holley was soon combing the neighborhood for interesting things and people. He returned excited. Across the street from Light, Holley had found a man named Felix Virgous, who, in imitation of Joe Light’s house, had covered with paintings and drawings a garage behind Virgous’s mother’s house. Light was unaware of Virgous’s decorated garage, even though it had existed for years. Joe Light is not curious. He already knows what he wants to know.

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The front porch and yard of Light’s house are “aimed” at the community. This is the domain of Joe Light the social critic, spokesman and evangelist for minority races and religions. There are (or were—he painted them over after two decades) autobiographical, cartoon-like images on his shutters, across the façade of his house: a boat with a rope tethering it to a pole; an insect extracting nourishment from a flower; a country bumpkin holding a dead rabbit; a hobo with the obligatory knapsack. Aimed solely at himself, their messages are as follows: don’t be a drifter, take care of your health, do what you must to provide for your family, and go to any length to seek enlightenment.

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Light exposes his metaphorical self-portraits to the passers-by, knowing they will not understand, but hoping that they will be attracted and amused—and if he draws them toward his house, he feels he has them hooked. They will then read his signs, straighten out their lives as per his instructions, and help make Looney Street (his street’s name) and the city of Memphis better places to live. That is how it should work; its failure disappoints Light but does not deter him.

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Inside the house lives Joe Light, husband and father. There have never been signs inside the house. He instructs his family differently, with entertainment mixed with love and mysticism: private symbols side-by-side with cartoon characters; strange glyphic forms and painted appliances; hand-decorated mirrors, vases, clocks, TV sets, and trophies; clusters of old photographs and mementos attached to walls throughout the house, shrine-like, comprising a visual history of, and homage to, individual members of his family.

It may be paranoia that causes Light to say, “There’s a lot of people out there trying to get me.” Or he may know something. He opposed some of the tactics of the civil rights movement, so he is certain that its leaders wanted him silenced. He criticized some of the Kennedy administration’s actions and he has no doubt that someone in the nation’s capital orchestrated his frequent incarcerations during the 1960s. He lambastes his neighbors with criticisms of their and their race’s shortcomings, and he scoffs at their heroes. He then wonders why he is the most unpopular resident of the neighborhood. With more sadness than anger, he says, “Nobody ain’t never planning to let me live in peace.” When told that his art may bring him acclaim and with it the attention and the respect he deserves, Light shrugs with resignation, and sounding like a talking blues singer, voices observations shared with many black artists of the South: “They don’t want my kind of truth going out there.”