Remembering the Art of the ‘Bird Lady’ of St. Pete 

It started in 1962, when she first arrived in St. Petersburg. And soon she became a familiar sight to thousands. With her bird-pecked straw bonnet, cautious eyes, three-wheeled bike, and flocks of gulls and sparrows clamoring for sustenance in her wake, Esther Wright was known to all as “The Bird Lady.” 

 For her love of the local fauna, Wright was featured in a number of national television programs, including Charles Kuralt’s CBS News feature On the Road, and the children’s program, Kid’s World. But few knew she was also an accomplished artist.

Wright’s batik Krishna with birds.

 Wright was born in Oshkosh, Wisconsin on October 15, 1898. After high school she taught children in a country school for two years until she decided to pursue art Chicago. She was accepted at the prestigious Chicago Art Institute and honored with showings of her work in the city. She also became interested in Hinduism and embraced it the rest of her life. 

Wright undertook her art career with vigor and became accomplished in batik art, a technique of using beeswax to create patterns and designs on dyed fabric. Besides Chicago, Wright had art studios in Boston and New York. She would leave one city and move to another at a moment’s notice. While working for the Salvation Army in New York City, however, a friend suggested she might like St. Petersburg, Florida. And so, on August 12, 1960, she hopped on a bus and came to the Sunshine State.

Wright’s batik cat, one of her favorite works.

Wright was 62 when she opened a small art studio on 4th Street. She accepted commissions to paint landscapes and birds on chinaware. Maas Brothers Department Store displayed her work, which featured children’s drawings painted on saucers and then fired in her kiln, in their second-floor chinaware department.  

Much of Wright’s work was influenced by Hinduism, including her batik paintings of Krishna and his followers. Krishna, one of the most revered deities in Hinduism, is considered the Supreme Personality of Godhead in the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition. He is known for his charming personality, divine pastimes, and teachings on the path of love and devotion.

Esther Wright, the Bird Lady, sometimes biked long distances to feed hungry birds and squirrels

Wright created intricate designs on 6×6 silk squares and the batik of the cat was one of her favorites. Her silk squares are signed “Sarala,” one of her Hindu names; her friends also called her Laksma. Eventually, Wright gave up her batik painting and turned to another all-consuming passion. Though she sometimes endured brutal public harassment, she spent the last 18 years of her life biking long distances to Williams Park and delivering food and kindness to seagulls, pigeons, doves, squirrels, sparrows, cats, and any other hungry creature fortunate to cross her path.

After her death in 1980, a roll of Wright’s batik paintings was discovered. And in February of 1981, then-Mayor Corinne Freeman had them exhibited for the month of February as a tribute to Wright in the upstairs lobby of the Municipal Services Building on 9th Street. Freeman also started the plans for a fountain in Wright’s memory in Williams Park – said to be one of Wright’s last wishes. At noon on October 15, 1981, Freeman and city council members dedicated the Esther Wright Memorial Fountain on the corner of 3rd Street and 2nd Avenue North. The fountain provided drinking water for all St. Petersburg residents, both human and otherwise. The concrete drinking fountain was surrounded at its base by a shallow, moat-like pool filtered with water for birds and animals. Funded by donations to The Friends of Esther Wright from people throughout the area, the fountain was designed free of charge by local architect Phil Graham, Jr.

The original ‘Bird Lady’ fountain in Williams Park, dedicated in 1981

“There are many people in this city who felt very strongly about Esther Wright,” Freeman told the large crowd at the fountain’s unveiling. “I believe that Esther would be glad to see this fountain and to see all of you here today.”

A small plaque was imbedded in the stone sidewalk surrounding the fountain, calling attention to her persistence and love of animals, stating: “In memory of Esther Wright, The Bird Lady; 1898-1980, who believed it was her destiny to feed and care for the small unfortunate creatures of this city.” 

St. Pete Mayor Corinne Freeman admiring Wright’s batik display in 1981.

Over the years the fountain was replaced and the moat for squirrels and birds was paved over. When the Downtown Neighborhood Association discovered the fountain was leaking and reported the problem to the city, it was replaced and new pavers were added in May 2023. The new fountain includes an animal watering station, and the mural on the new retaining wall, by local artist Deb Primosh, features birds, dogs, and other creatures that Ester Wright spent much of her life honoring in her art and her deeds.