We Were All Just Kids – Ode to the Inspired Genius of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Just before I lost my high level position as director of communications for a national medical association in mid-June 2011, I read Just Kids by Patti Smith. In the darkest days after losing my job, I found inspiration and salvation in Patti Smith’s words. Just Kids also sparked a rediscovery of her groundbreaking music, but with a more appreciative, mature ear than I had at RISD when my freshman roommate played Horses day and night. Her cutting-edge punk rock music was a bit too hard for me back then, but listening to it some 30 years later made me fully comprehend the sheer genius and depth of her musical poetry. Below is a collage I created in homage to Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe that I exhibited in a group show at Studio 659.

During my depths of despair, I played several Patti Smith songs over and over as if I was once again a young adult coming of age. Well, I guess in essence I did go through a rebirth of sorts spurred on by losing my high-paying job. Having more time on my hands enabled me to get back to my fine art and exhibiting my work. Gloria, Dancing Barefoot, People Have the Power, and the brilliant Horses among other songs inspired this burst of creativity … that continues to this day. While I haven’t had a major solo gallery show, I feel promise looming on the horizon.

In Just Kids, Smith writes about her uncanny ability to find and sell rare books for cash during her years as a struggling, starving artist. I related to this on a very personal level – although I have been selling antiques on ebay since 1997, losing my job made selling these treasures a “life or starvation” obsession. I actually parted with personal mementos I have collected since childhood in order to make ends meet – and this felt liberating. As I get older, the “You Can’t Take it With You” sentiment has hit hard, so I am fine with somebody else enjoying these treasures to pay for the basic needs of my family including a roof over our heads.

I marveled at the necklaces that Mapplethorpe created because they often incorporated the same materials that fascinate me – rabbit’s feet, elk teeth, and skulls. I didn’t know he was talented in mediums other than photography until reading Just Kids and the passages about his early work, such as this one: “He liked the boxes of Joseph Cornell and often transformed bits of jetsam, colored string, paper lace, discarded rosaries, scrap, and pearls into a visual poem. He would stay awake late into the night, sewing, cutting, gluing, and then adding touches of gouache.”

Photos by Judy Linn

A highlight of my recent 8-day trip to NYC was running into and briefly talking to Smith at a little Nepalese boutique in Soho that was going out of business. This seemed like Kismet to me – there isn’t any other celebrity that I would have liked meeting more than Smith. And she is a reluctant celebrity which makes her incredible talent even more appealing – about as shy and soft-spoken as it gets. I could have said so much more, but didn’t want to impose on her privacy. I should have expounded on why Just Kids touched me beyond words on so many levels. Smith not only wrote an incredibly touching, passionate memoir about her relationship with Mapplethorpe, but also eloquently captured a seminal moment in time in NYC and the pitfalls and triumphs of two remarkable artists on their often precarious path to fame. This book also evoked personal connections for me of taking photos of peep shows in Times Square and going to Playland during frequent coming-of-age journeys to NYC during my years at RISD.

Those seedy XXX-rated shops, peep shows, pimps, panhandlers, and hookers repulsed and entranced me. I walked Broadway, Nikon in hand, summoning the spirits of Arbus and Weegee; a world away from the failed relationship with Steve and my Ivory Tower art school existence in provincial Providence. Skee-Ball at Playland, a $4.99 steak dinner at Martin’s, and an encounter with a con man outside Howard Johnson’s led me to the gritty underbelly that is the Times Square of my mind.

Although I bemoan the disappearance of the vibrant, edgy NYC depicted so beautifully in Just Kids, it is still a city of creative inspiration. I detest the Times Square of today with its fake Disneyland-like commercialism and in-your face crassness. I reluctantly agreed to walk through there with my daughter during my recent trip. I much prefer the seedy, gritty quality of the Times Square that drew me in much like it did Patti and Robert, albeit nearly a decade later after they discovered it. I will sing my personal praises and criticisms of the many faces of NYC in another upcoming blog or two.

Although the most famous of Mapplethorpe’s photos of muscled men came a couple of years after I graduated from RISD, his work was already on my radar and inspired my senior year work. That body of work consisted of marble and woodcarvings of bodybuilders created in the classical tradition of Michelangelo but with a contemporary twist. I was naïve at the time and didn’t realize that Mapplethorpe was into S&M and living a promiscuous life. It is very sad that he lost his life to AIDS due to this lifestyle, but knowing this doesn’t affect the way I look at his work, even now. I admired his exquisite craft and saw parallels in what he was doing in photography with what I was trying to achieve in my sculptures.

I had the honor of meeting Mapplethorpe at a retrospective exhibition of his work in Chicago at the Young Hoffman Gallery – now the Rhona Hoffman Gallery. I am not certain if this was in 1979 before I graduated from RISD, or after I returned from my first stay in Holland in 1981. The more I think about it, I believe it was the latter. He was very cordial to me and seemed down to earth, even though he had already gained fame. He embodied cool with his black leather jacket, black jeans, and very hip vintage cowboy boots. I presented him with a greeting card of one of his works to autograph that I had bought in NYC – he laughed and said he couldn’t remember even taking that photo.

Smith received the National Book Award for Just Kids – a well-deserved honor. Critics and fans agree that it is a very poignant, extremely well written and intriguing memoir. I am ecstatic that Smith is planning a sequel. Tears were streaming down my face as I read Smith’s poetic tale of struggle and survival – starvation and fame. I cried for Smith’s losses and well as my own lost youth and the realization that so much time had gone by since RISD and I had not achieved my dreams of becoming a successful artist. But ultimately, it inspired me with the promise of things to come and that you never should give up hope, as cliché as that sounds.

One Comment:

  1. Betsy I just happened to run across this off the Yelpnote on Sparrow’s Wings.

    I hope your search/journey has turned out well and I enjoyed this reflection on Patti Smith a great deal. I have been a fan for maybe
    30 years, an amazing woman, particularly so if you can imagine what it must have been like to live with Maplethorpe.

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