A one-woman show came to Bryn Mawr Feb. 7, as artist and musician Patti Smith took the stage in an exclusive performance for the college community.
Smith read from her memoir, “Just Kids,” sang a few of her songs and answered questions from the audience.
Smith was at Bryn Mawr to receive the Hepburn Medal, named for Katharine Hepburn ’28 and her mother, Katharine Houghton, Class of 1900, later that evening, in honor of her work as a “trailblazer in the male-dominated world of rock and roll,” according to the Hepburn Center.
Following a brief introduction from Neda Ulaby ’93, an arts reporter from NPR, Smith went onstage to loud applause from the audience, which then broke in to Bryn Mawr’s traditional cheer, the Anassa Kata. Smith responded with her own high school cheer, adding that high school was, “the only thing I finished.”
As the Hepburn Center honoree, Smith spoke briefly about Katharine Hepburn and her influence in the art world as an actress. Smith explained that after learning that she would receive the award, she read about Hepburn and her time at Bryn Mawr. Smith said that while Hepburn didn’t have the best experience at the College, “The day she got her diploma, she knew who she was.”
Smith emphasized that for students undergoing the same conflicted feelings that Hepburn expressed about her time at Bryn Mawr, their destiny hasn’t been fulfilled yet, and that they have the time to find it now and after college.
“Really treasure this time,” she said. “Even if it seems like a drag now…and all you want to do is listen to Jimi Hendrix and drink wine.”
In a separate interview with student journalists at Bryn Mawr, Smith talked about her attachment to Philadelphia. She grew up in Germantown, Penn. for seven years, and hoped to move there after high school, but couldn’t because of the cost.
“I was always proud to be from this City of Brotherly Love,” she said. “It has one of the greatest museums in the world, the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I saw my first art here, my first Picasso in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. I saw John Coltrane, Nina Simone. It’s a great, exciting city. Plus the cheesesteaks are really good.”
Smith largely fielded questions about writing her memoir, and how she felt during the experience.
She explained that Robert Mapplethorpe, Smith’s partner both romantically and artistically, asked her to write their story as he was dying. Writing the book was an intense period in her life as Smith dealt with her grief and learned how to detail their life together on the page.
“So much pain and excitement went in to that little thing,” Smith said.
She said that the process was extremely difficult, as she repeatedly wrote and shelved the book when it became too hard to write. During that time, Smith went through three different publishers.
Smith then urged the audience, “Don’t give up, if it’s really important to you, the important thing is to do it well.”
“[Writing the book] was the longest college education ever,” she said.
Smith briefly attended college, but said, “I didn’t learn from a school, I learned from my teachers at the University of Chelsea Hotel,” referencing the time she lived at New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, the famed landmark that was home to artist, writers and musicians in the 60’s and 70’s.
Smith played two songs, “In My Blakean Year,” which she said was her friend and writer Allen Ginsberg’s favorite song, and “Grateful,” which was inspired by a vision she had of Jerry Garcia.
After an audience member asked Smith what was the best piece of advice she’d ever received, she talked about the writer William Burroughs, who taught her how to build her name as an artist.
“He told me this; you have to build up your name and keep your name clean,” she said. “You always have to make choices in your life that are right for you and who you are.”
“I made mistakes in my life, but they were my mistakes, not anyone else’s.”
When asked what she would tell her younger self though, she focused on dentistry.
“I would tell myself to get my teeth professionally cleaned.”
As for what she wants her legacy to be, Smith said, “Just simply that I did good work. In the end that’s what’s going to endure.”
Towards the end of her performance, Smith gave advice to students with their career aspirations, telling the audience that, “Everything you want to do well for your vocation, you have to be willing to work hard when things are worth it,” she said. “It takes a lot of work.”
“My culture was very work based. I wasn’t concerned about obstacles or breaking in to any scenes. For me my main concern was my work. The main obstacle is the ones of your own process. The rest is just climbing a ladder.”
Smith ended by singing “Because the Night” a capella, something she said she would never do in the 70’s or 80’s, for fear of embarrassment. She advised the audience though, not to live by that sentiment.
“Don’t sweat being embarrassed, everybody’s going to look like an asshole sooner or later.”