Patience Lovell Wright (1725-1786)
Stage Name: Patty Cake Patience
Uprisings for equality, independence and just societies have never been moments, they’ve always been movements. Yes, we’re quoting a Hamilton lyric because we didn’t want to throw away our shot to do so. Oh, there we go again. Another lyric. This is what happens when we take it back to the days of the Revolutionary War. A time when leaders like Daddy George Washington and Father Thomas Jefferson fought for freedom for a wee group of thirteen colonies and its people while they simultaneously deprived freedom from others: enslaved people, women, and pretty much anyone who wasn’t a White male. We’ve come a long way since then, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
This week is America’s birthday and like many a quarantine birthday that has come and gone, it feels weird this year for many unfortunate reasons. As the U.S. fails to flatten the coronavirus curve and Black people continue to be victimized by police, it just doesn’t feel right to celebrate the Fourth of July this year. Why celebrate America — a country that was created to support life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights — when its leaders so frequently squash those claims for certain groups?
However, we thought we’d take this time to highlight the life and work of a woman who doesn’t appear in the Revolutionary War chapter of history textbooks (shocking! jk). Patience Lovell Wright might not have crossed the Delaware River, and her signature doesn’t appear on the Declaration of Independence, but she still played a crucial role in America’s independence from Great Britain.
Though Patience had few rights, her artistic skills and independent spirit allowed her to pursue opportunities and earn respectability during an era that didn’t typically value women. She defeated roadblocks in her way, and pursued life, liberty and happiness before they were even enshrined in American doctrine. So if you’re going to have a Fourth of July BBQ this weekend, make sure to shuffle Patience’s playlist so you get a taste of what it was like to be a woman thrivin’ and survivin’ in colonial America:
Patience Lovell was born on Long Island in 1725, when “America” was really just a series of colonies that were under British control. Her parents were well-off Quakers, who moved Patience and her sisters to Bordentown, New Jersey a couple years after her birth. As little kids, Patience and her sisters would shape clay and wet flour to create little figurines, and use plant extracts to paint them different colors (is this what growing up without a TV is like??). It was not, in fact, Michelangelo who created David, but rather these small sisters and a mound of damp King Arthur flour who created the Renaissance masterpiece. OK, we lied, but Patience got pretty good at sculpting in her youth.
In her early 20s, Patience married Joseph Wright. Joseph was quite a bit older than Patience, and he carved out a wealthy life for his young wife working as a successful landowner. This wasn’t a marriage of two people who found love in a hopeless place on the dancefloor of a colonial ball. It was economic security. Joseph spent much of his time away from home tending to his properties, leaving Patience home alone with their three children. To entertain them and herself, she continued to create makeshift sculptures and taught her children to create images out of bread dough and putty (similar to what you may have done while dabbling with a sourdough recipe during your quarantine). Joseph, however, passed away in 1769, and Patience became a widow at 44 years old. All her husband owned was stripped away from Patience. None of it was ever hers in the first place. Because women could not inherit their husband’s wealth and assets back in the Colonial Era, Patience was left to fend for herself and her children with very few resources.
Her neighbor, Francis Hopkinson, whose resume includes “signer of the Declaration of Independence” and “designer of the Great Seal of New Jersey,” suggested to Patience that she “Never Work for Free” and turn her sculpting talents into a full-time job. Thus began her journey in her own path to success as she molded portrait busts in tinted wax. Her finished products were lauded for their impressive detail and life-size proportions. Public figures began to know Patience’s name, and they’d wait patiently for her to toil for hours to create a life-like bust of themselves. She sculpted with wax, which had to be warm in order to mold into the shapes she created. She was one with her art in that she held materials in her lap, under her skirt, and really used all the space she had to create the best busts or statues possible. As she finished her projects, she’d usually add some color to the cheeks and lips to make them more lifelike. Sometimes she even attached eyelashes, but not the magnetic kind. Talk about a glow up. These wax portraits, which traveled across the colonies with her, are the earliest recorded sculptures in America. Her work appeared on display in cities such as New York and Philadelphia, and she became greatly respected and successful.
During the time that her art was exhibited in NYC, a block of buildings caught fire on Queen Street. In one of those buildings were most of Patience’s pieces of art. They were all lost. Once again, she had to start from scratch. Wright decided to depart the colonies with her family for Great Britain and had a serendipitous run-in with Jane Mecom, who was the younger sister of Founding Father with a Father Benjamin Franklin. Through her new found Franklin connection, Patience was introduced to the high society of London. Soon enough she was sculpting busts and figures of Britain’s “Royals.”
Her Quaker roots didn’t quite fit in with the poshness of the elite, so she was seen as kind of quirky by the wig wearers of Parliament and their ladies. Patience’s art and creative process, though, was respected. Also, her life was interesting to them. She lived in the land of colonies that they had heard so much about, but many had never seen. Meanwhile in her homeland, revolution was stirring. Before Paul Revere and his many fellow horsemen and women rode off into the nights to warn about the coming of the Redcoats, Patience began her work as an overseas spy.
She had access to insider information simply by doing her job: sculpting. They didn’t think that she would be listening, learning, and memorizing information. She was just an artist at work. It was during these sculpture sessions with leaders of the British government and members of the military that she collected top secret information. She gave a little and got a little in return with each meeting. How did Patience pass these messages to leaders of the revolution? In her very own, handmade wax figures. Most of the information she compiled was shared directly with Benjamin Franklin. She would write the notes, put them in the figurines, and then send them to her sister who lived in Philadelphia. These were then passed along to Franklin. Since a lot of her notes were sent before the Revolutionary War started in 1775, most of the information she shared explained who of Great Britain was in charge of what in Parliament and how that would play out in their probable fight against the colonists.
As Patience sculpted and listened in enemy territory, protests led by colonists with no more patience for control by Great Britain took place along the coast across the Atlantic. The paper, tea and pretty much any good imported to the colonies were taxed. Why should a tiny island across the sea regulate the price of tea? (again, with the Hamiton lyrics oops). They were not having it anymore. So they dumped some tea into the harbor (which we all learned about from the Suite Life of Zack & Cody, not our history books), held a few meetings and eventually clashed with the Redcoats in battle. At the First Continental Congress the likes of George Washington, John Adams, Samuel Adams and John Jay gathered in Philly to denounce taxation without representation and to declare their rights due to every citizen including life, liberty, property, assembly and trial by jury. Take the phrase, “every citizen,” with a grain of salt. Again while they fought for their own freedom and independence, they willingly withheld it from so many others. Over a year of war passed before the Declaration of Independence was signed, sealed and delivered to King George on July 4, 1776. In return, the British lovingly sent a massive fleet of ships to New York.Back and forth battles until 1783, the Revolutionary War finally came to an end with the Treaty of Paris which declared independence to America.
Unfortunately, Patience’s career sculpting for royalty came to an end around 1776, only a year into the war. She became more and more outspoken during each session about her support of the colonists’ fight for independence. Because of her differing opinion, her talents were no longer of use. And as the Revolutionary War got more and more heated (hot enough in fact to heat her wax), she was more of a liability for these British higher ups to have around. Wright continued to write to B. Franklin and called for a rebellion to rise in Britain as well. Simply put, Ben ghosted her.
In 1780, Patience moved to Paris. While there she tried to break into the art scene, using a bust she created of Ben Franklin as an introduction to her artistic style. However, France was about to deal with its own Revolution and was not the place to come in as a newbie. So she left and returned to London in 1782. While preparing to return to America, she wrote to both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson asking if she could sculpt busts of them in honor of their successes in leading the colonies to independence from Great Britain. Jefferson never answered, but Washington wrote back with excitement and accepted her offer. Unfortunately, Patience Wright passed away before she had the chance to do so. She died on March 23, 1786.
Recognized as America’s first native-born sculptor, Patience Lovell Wright did more than make statues for museums. She helped sculpt the end of British control over the colonies. Even though Ben Franklin eventually ghosted her, Patience’s information proved extremely useful and important during the early days of the Revolutionary War. Her creative thinking is an example of how people can use their own unique talents to contribute to a movement.