Red Bird

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    Photo: Stephen Pitkin/Pitkin Studio
Enamel on plywood
48 x 96 inches
Collection of
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco museum purchase American Art Trust Fund and gift of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation

As a teenager, Joe Light spent time in prison, where he studied the Old Testament with a chaplain. He later recalled a moment of religious doubt when he asked God for a sign and a bird flew onto the windowsill of his cell. Birds thereafter became potent personal symbols for the artist, representing his moment of religious awakening. Red Bird may be seen as a metaphor for salvation. The foreground features an abundance of blossoms that may symbolize earthly temptation and sensual pleasure. The river, a frequent feature in Light’s landscapes, may evoke the cleansing ritual of baptism—a necessity before crossing from the material world to the spiritual realm. The cardinal, popularly called a red bird in Light’s home state of Tennessee, may represent Light’s conversion and the potential for the view to follow his path. —Lauren Palmor