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~ Francine Conley ~

"The Purse Project" (2000)

VHS videos and DVD samples available upon request

Artist's Statement

Henry James once said that a writer is someone on whom nothing should be lost. 

I wonder if Henry James carried a purse.

Any way you look at it, we all carry purses.  Even if we don't own a purse, we may use a bag, a pocketbook, pockets or our hands as purses.  And we're even born out of a mother's purse of sorts, and once out like a compact, we're forced to face our mirrors.

Writing is like owning a purse: you dig, rummage, take out, put back in, throw away, and keep.

"The Purse Project" had its camouflaged beginnings back when I developed an oddly dependent relationship with a black bag, my favorite bag.  That bag had been through more with me than any person I know.  As it began to fall apart, I sewed and stitched Velcro where zippers once were.  I added new pockets in places there were none.  Finally, its fabric had worn so thin (there were holes within the holes), that I realized (or was I told?) I had to give it up.  So I did, quickly, in fact.  I was walking in New York one day and I stuffed it in a trash can and, unlike Orpheus, didn't turn back.  I thought it should leave me anonymously.  Yet, for months after, I had the same dream about that bag.  I felt like I'd lost a limb.

I have yet to find a bag to replace it.  Since I've told this story to friends, I've discovered more people who also had a "favorite bag."  I've never really owned a purse, but as with my black bag, have been hypnotized by them for years - all kinds:  purses, wallets, pocketbooks, backpacks, handbags, pockets, plastic, and paper bags.

I am particularly drawn to women who cart their belonging around in plastic sacks, and I have wondered why an expression such as "bag lady" exists, but not "bag man."  Are purses exclusively linked to women?  And what does it really mean, for example, to be a bag lady?  What of men who carry wallets fat as walruses in their back pockets; what of the imprint left in the pants once the wallet is gone?

Recently, on a visit to a Goodwill store, a long line of bins overflowing with empty purses and pocketbooks struck me  Who had owned these bags?  What had filled them?  And how to describe to you the feeling that came over me as I rummaged through these purses and found forgotten keys, change, a make-up brush here and there, a mirror?

"The Purse Project" was inspired by these and other experiences, and by the physical object itself (those soft caves of pockets within pockets, the zippers, the snaps, the opening and closing, the tucking away of stuff into smaller, secret holding places which, once revealed, become who we are).

Finally, I was moved by the generous amount of written pieces sent to me by writers and visual artists who agreed to my request more than a year ago to send me an anecdote, story, poem, note, drawing, photograph - anything - about a purse, bag, pocketbook.  I received more pieces than I'd anticipated, which testifies to the secret place purses and pocketbooks hold in our psyches.

You will see me perform an adapted selection of my own work and written pieces sent to me.  While the monologues vary in subject matter and tenor, they share similar obsessions:  What's in your purse and why?  What happens when a purse is opened, stolen, or lost?  What of this need to carry things around with us?  When do we let go?

March 2000

Performance History

  • Madison Art Center, Madison, WI, April 2000 (premiere)


Program Quotations

The compleinte of Chaucer to his empty purs!

"To you, my purs, and to non other wight
compleyne I, for ye be my lady dere!
I am so sory now that ye be light;
For certes, but ye make me hevy chere,
Me were as leef be leyd up-on my bere,
For which un-to you mercy thus I crye:
Beth hevy ageyn, or elles mot I dye!"

"Every woman should have her own purse."
Susan B. Anthony

Purse:  purse (n) 1) a: small bag for money; a receptacle (as a pocketbook) for carrying money & often other small objects; b: a receptable (as a pouch) shaped like a purse; 2) a: resources, funds; b: a sum of money offered as a prize or present; purselike (adj.)


Artistic Staff

Musical Directors:  John Boudreau & Brent Goodman
Technical Director:  Mindy Winter
Set Design/Video Artist:  Gregg Williard



 “Conley peers into that most pedestrian object, the purse, and finds insight into the transition from girlhood to womanhood, the subtleties of desire, and the ways we represent who we are. … An engaging collection of performance pieces that asks us to look at an ordinary object in new unexpected ways…”  --Jessica Berson, Isthmus, 2000

“In theater, the best happened in unexpected places: Francine Conley’s The Purse Project!”  --“The Best of 2000Arts Scene, Isthmus, 2000

“The Purse Project transformed an ordinary object, the purse, into multiple metaphors for the kinds of containers we create – gender, logic, the womb, the heart …”  --“The Best of 2000” Arts Scene, Isthmus, 2000