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B. Penn

789: On a Columnar Self –

Dress Matters: Clothing as Metaphor exhibition

Tucson Museum of Art, James J. and Louise R. Glasser Gallery


The installation was restructured and revised (from the original 1994 installation)

120 in. H x 147 in. W x 71 in. D, revised 2017.

Photography by Kathryn Sweeney, second 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.


Relevance of Revisioning this Work in 2017:


The current relevance of this artwork came to light during the re-creation of this work, initially made in 1994 and re-created in 2017. Penn noted that there is still a major gap for women and people of color, in connecting to today’s world—as witnessed by the recent taking down of confederate statues in the news. These events pointed to men who were once honored but now are viewed as marginalizing or silencing certain groups or individuals, through racism and sexism.


Culture today is still working very hard to bring equality to all people. The absence of honoring women is noticed, even in our lack of female statuary. There is now more outward awareness of assaults on women via the “#Me Too” global movements; now women are being heard more by men. Women are still left out of the highest work positions in government and in numerous places of employment, education, in families, and overall stations in society. Women are still not being treated fairly or paid equally. The few known women artists represented in the highest spheres of the art world still earn roughly forty-five percent less than men who sell their work at the top level.


This time in history continues to call attention to the words in Dickinson’s poem—finding strength in times of tumult. This artwork speaks to the strength in creativity, in birthing new ideas or in having more choice. It references the incredible strength it took to be a woman in the past, and remains challenging in our present and current culture.

Description of Work:

Once owned by Penn’s maternal grandmother, the dress that is central to 789: On a Columnar Self—  references Emily Dickinson’s white dress. For Penn, her grandmother’s dress represents what was cultivated by the women and three sisters she grew up with. The dress also embodies Penn’s concept of womanhood which expanded as she encountered women during her adult journey who had dedicated their lives to a chosen career path or direction.  Some were artists, some were not; they formed friendships with Penn, mentoring her and/or sharing their feminist views. These women resonated a different kind of role modeling beyond the home. At the same time the remarkable and prolific poet, Emily Dickinson, first influenced the artist in the 1990’s spring-boarding Penn’s installations that paralleled ideas in Dickinson’s biography and poems. Dickinson’s poems continue to inspire Penn deeply.  Radical in her time, the 19th century poet, possessed inner and outer intuition, strength and wisdom. Dickinson’s thoughts and poetry have continued to impact devotees across centuries.


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

The dress on its form stands high above granite, egg and column as a symbol of defined selfhood,  female space, and creativity. Dickinson, in her poem, visually takes us to circumstances “In Tumult— or Extremity—”, only to remind us “How good the Certainty”.

In the poem, Dickinson relates a reviving of one’s strength, almost a demand to hold conviction, even at times when certainty or taking a stand might elude us. (See poem above).


There are many stories about Emily Dickinson’s white dress. Legend has it that she wore white all the time in her later years, though there is no account of this in Dickinson’s writings. Her only surviving dress is white and full length. Aife Murray, a contemporary feminist writer and artist has explored Dickinson’s relationship to the Irish-born servants employed in her home. Paraphrasing Murray, “This period of time that Dickinson was advantaged by household labor allowed the poet time and space to write.”  Dickinson, who was a woman ahead of her time, perhaps recognized the liberation of wearing white, which was actually underclothing for rather complex Victorian outer wear. The servants would launder underclothing, so she could be free to write, dressing unconventionally while not having to care for an elaborate wardrobe—a way she found to prioritize her writing and creativity.

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