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B. Penn

789: On a Columnar Self –

Re-Visioning Emily Dickinson solo exhibition

Tucson Center for Performing Arts and Tucson Poetry Festival XII, Tucson, AZ

 (originally, The All Saints Church on South 6th Avenue)


160 in H x 158 in W x 48 in D, 1994.

Photography by Keith Schreiber, first showing

The installation was originally created in 1994 and installed at the All Saints Church on South 6th Avenue, Tucson, AZ when it was the Tucson Center for the Performing Arts.


In 1990, the building was purchased and owned by the City of Tucson and named The Tucson Center for the Performing Arts in order to provide a suitable venue in an historic neighborhood for emerging theatre groups and performing artists. It had to close its door around 1999 for more building code improvements, and there were attempts to raise more money to reopen it in 2004, but it became too costly.


789: On a Columnar Self—

In installation 789: On a Columnar Self— there is a reference to Emily Dickinson’s white dress but with a different dress, once owned by the artist’s maternal grandmother. The dress on its form stands high above granite, egg and column as a symbol of defined ‘selfhood’, ‘female space’ and ‘creativity’. Dickinson visually takes us in her poem to circumstances “In Tumult— or Extremity—“ only to remind us “How good the Certainty”. Dickinson’s poem relates a reviving of one’s strength, almost demanded to hold conviction, even at times when certainty or taking a stand might elude us.


There are many stories about Emily Dickinson’s white dress. Aife Murray, a contemporary feminist writer and artist has explored Dickinson’s relationship to the Irish-born servants employed in her home. This period of time that Dickinson was advantaged by household labor allowed the poet time and space to write.  Dickinson, a woman ahead of her time, recognized the liberation of wearing white, which was actually underclothing for rather complex Victorian outer clothing. The servants would launder underclothing, so she could be free to write and dress unconventionally and not have to care for an elaborate wardrobe—a way she found to prioritize her writing.               


On a Columnar Self – 
How ample to rely
In Tumult – or Extremity – 
How good the Certainty


That Lever cannot pry – 
And Wedge cannot divide
Conviction – That Granite Base – 
Though None be on our Side – 


Suffice Us – for a Crowd – 
Ourself – and Rectitude – 
And that Assembly – not far off
From furthest Spirit – God – 

c. 1863                                                    1929

Poem written by: Emily Dickinson

From: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

Edited by Thomas H. Johnson

c. 1863 – conjectured earliest known manuscript

1929 – date of first publication

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