Good books are kind of like Tarot cards for me. There is a magic to what you pick up, when you pick it up, and what the message is for your life. Lately I’ve been yearning to start painting again, which is perhaps why I chose to read Just Kids last week, the National Book Award winner by Patti Smith about her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe. Well, friendship seems a lame term to describe them. I will use her term “artist and muse,” which they each were for each other.
The book is a fascinating description (as only a poet can describe it) of the process of them each becoming who they were meant to be—the long, winding process—at a time in New York City when the city itself was just becoming what it was meant to be. The fact that Smith didn’t start out wanting to be a rock star, or even a singer, and the opportunity to see the evolution of how her success came about is like watching a rare flower bloom in slow motion…the kind of flower that Robert Mapplethorpe would have photographed (who, by the way, didn’t even pick up a camera until his mid 20’s).
I was intensely jealous of Smith’s affair with Sam Shepherd. I could relate to her modeling herself after Bob Dylan (my kids roll their eyes, but I think he is utterly amazing as an artist living a fully creative life). I finally understand the importance of the Chelsea Hotel. I related deeply to how a muse can influence your life, your art, and your heart (a muse is someone who feeds your creativity in such a way that you can’t help but create—I have one in my life as well). I love, love, love the courage of both Patti and Robert to create art that is both beautiful and uncomfortable, pushing the boundaries of sexuality and society.
Which brings me to a story of magic about this book. I was out for a business dinner the other night, and ran into a couple that I know from my husband’s (Catholic) church. She is the church’s retired organist (and a former Lutheran). We started talking about painting and she asked me if I paint. I told her about how I was thinking about starting again and she said “Oh your daughters would love to have your paintings.” And I said, “I don’t think they would want to have the paintings I feel like I want to paint right now.” And then she mentioned an artist, Alice Neel, who I had never heard of. “Friend of Allen Ginsberg” she said, which piqued my curiosity. I went home and googled Alice Neel and thought to myself…yes. Exactly. (And good lord, what is a Catholic organist doing looking at paintings like these?) But here is the magic…I went home that night and picked up the book to finish it. I opened to the page where I’d stopped reading, and there was her name: Alice Neel. So OK, I promise I will start painting again! I get the message, universe.
I don’t like to read books that make me cry. And I thought I would be able to handle this one, since I knew in advance the sad ending of Robert Mapplethorpe—but the truth is I burst into tears, and even cried out loud, when the book was over. Actually, the real truth is I finished it last night and I am still crying this morning as I write this. I am crying for my brother, who also died of AIDS (in 1985). I am crying for the fact that so many young people I know and work with today have no idea who Patti Smith or Robert Mapplethorpe are, or know the profound influence they and their contemporaries have on the things that are important to all of us today. And I am crying for me—the girl who once thought she would be a painter and somehow ended up being a CEO (which is, honestly, a different form of art, but art just the same). I’ve been crying so much that now I have a headache. Which means it’s time to apply rule #5 (harden the f*ck up), get dressed, go to work and get on with my life.
So thank you, Patti, for being such an incredible poet, rock star, writer, artist, and story teller. Your album Easter was one of my favorites from my youth. I can still remember hearing it, and feeling changed. Freed. Empowered. Erotic—which is how I feel when I paint. Thank you for reminding me.