I just finished reading Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. It is the story of her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe in the time of a burgeoning New York City art scene of the 1960s and 70s. They WERE kids who arrived in New York with nothing but their determination to be artists. They wandered into one another’s lives and became inseparable. Early on, they made a pact to help one another until they found their voices–or the world was ready for them.Their belief in one another sustained them.
Poor, hungry, cold. It didn’t seem to matter. For Mapplethorpe especially, It was only a matter of time before they would be important contributors to art.
The thing that I found most remarkable in this book, aside from her spare yet majestic prose, was the lack of self-consciousness on their path of self-discovery. It never seemed to cross their minds that their art was junk or just plain bad. They were just happy doing it and Patti made it work. There didn’t seem to be doubt about the why they were making art even when they never knew where their next meal was coming from. A room, a hotplate and a communal bathroom was just fine. What they lacked, paled next to a find on the street, perfect for a collage or subject for a poem.
While reading this book, I remembered a conversation I had with my husband a month or so ago. We were lamenting about how the enthusiasm with which children first write and draw is drummed out of them with the ‘rules’ of school. My daughters had a teacher, Judy Simon, who read a story to parents at open school night, addressing just that subject. It was her promise to us that she wouldn’t do that. But for more reasons than just this one, Judy was an exception. More typical feedback to an elementary schooler: Why did you color the cow purple. Have you ever seen a purple cow? Stay in the lines. You spelled that wrong. Don’t write so fast. Your handwriting is messy. I couldn’t believe it when a teacher of the gifted and talented told my daughter her poem was no good because it didn’t rhyme. Are you kidding me?
That rigidity is unbelievable short sighted. We all grow up with far too many restrictions in all phases of our lives. Think of the backstory for entrepreneurs, inventors—all kinds of creators. It is an amazing thing to watch and listen to a child create a world of aliens and villains and heroes.
Mapplethorpe pushed hard against boundaries . Mapplethorpe, an altar boy raised in a strict Catholic home, found fame with his photographic exploration of hustling and the world of S & M. He was unthwarted.
There are so many examples of how artists thrive when they live in a creative cocoon. In the case of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe, it was not just the belief in each other but the world they inhabited. They frequented Max’s Kansas City bar, where Andy Warhol held court at a regular table. They lived in Hotel Chelsea and got to know William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Johnny Winter.
How different is this from the expat gatherings in Paris fifty years earlier at Shakespeare & Company and the Café Flore? Then it was Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Gertrude Lawrence, Jean Paul Sartre, and Joyce who hung out.
But there is more through the centuries. Think Italian Rennaissance.
When Susan Cheever was promoting her book, American Bloomsbury: Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Henry David Thoreau: Their Lives, Their Loves, Their Work, I asked her what she thought about these groups popping up sporadically who produce such incredible work. What were the chances that these writers in the 1850s would all live in the same neighborhood?
She said, “genius clusters.”
I’m not sure about this. I know synergy is critical. But beyond that, it seems like an easy out. There has got to be something more to it.
When someone is comfortable in one art form, they are more likely to try others successfully. Tony Bennett paints. Clint Eastwood composes music. Steve Martin plays the banjo and writes novels. In my own circle of friends who are writers, there are many who are also visual artists.
Genius clusters aside, I know that the inner critic is a pretty hardy specimen. The trick is finding the balance between your own perpetual nagging doubt (nobody needs help with that!)and the people you surround yourself with.
Patti seemed to care less about the trappings of life than finding her artistic metier. That undoubtedly helped her evolve as a multi-talented artist. But beyond that, she was a true friend. If we are lucky, we will have someone like her in our lives. Someone who encourages, doesn’t judge, and gives us safe haven.