Prudence Punderson (American, 1758–1784). The First, Second, and Last Scene of Mortality, 1776–83. Untwisted silk thread on a plain woven silk ground, frame: 15 9/16 x 19 11/16 in. (39.5 x 50 cm). Collection of the Connecticut Historical Society, Hartford, Gift of Newton C. Brainard
Prudence worked on this piece for 7 years and died a year later. She was 26. May we all produce one thing as beautiful as this in a lifetime. This piece inspired Kiki Smith’s exhibition, “Sojourn” at The Brooklyn Museum. I didn’t read much on “Sojourn”as site specific art installations tend to jerk my sense of narrative. This seems as I type a somewhat insolent thing to say, but I believe in questions and in pointing at things.
Sojourn is one of my favorite words and I think that the shortness of Prudence Punderson’s life is not lost on Kiki Smith. Nor was it lost on Prudence Punderson. The initials ‘PP’ are embroidered on the coffin. Sojourn, indeed.
Joan Didion is where I first remember reading the word, sojourn. It was in The White Album, Section IV, “Sojourns.” Didion starts her first essay “In the Islands.” She is waiting in the Royal Hawaiian Hotel in Honolulu for a tidal wave to hit. It’s 1969. She writes, “We are here on this island in the middle of the Pacific in lieu of filing for divorce.” She goes on, “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind… you are getting a woman who for some time now has felt radically separated from most of the ideas that seem to interest other people.”
If you get caught up in details it is difficult to take the long view. Who hasn’t responded to a friend with the happenings of the day with a pause. When you notice their glossed over stare; in the middle of describing the virtues of a needlepoint or such, of indifference. It makes you want to pack off to Rome or Shanghai or if it were a Didion novel, Kuala Lumpur where you could at least imagine a language difference.
From the Brooklyn Museum’s website:
Prudence Punderson’s remarkable silk embroidery offers a unique perspective on women’s lives during the Federal period. It depicts a well-appointed parlor in which three stages of a woman’s life—birth, adulthood, and death—take place, from right to left. The image is rare in that its central vignette shows a woman engaged in an artistic pursuit rather than a scene of marriage or motherhood. Also rare for the period is the portrayal of an enslaved female of African descent as an integral part of the scene. With its pronounced element of autobiography and sophisticated use of symbolic imagery, Punderson’s iconic embroidery is an inspirational narrative, which provided the model for Kiki Smith’s installation project Sojourn.