It's been decades since Patti Smith last spoke with her late friend Robert Mapplethorpe, but the memories of their time together remain as indelible as any image in her celebrated life.
She came in through the botanical garden.
Patti Smith, poet, rock star and decorated author, arrived at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens on Tuesday to walk through a living art exhibit dedicated to her creative life and love affair with late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
And here, after she had taken in all the sights and sounds charting her rise from ambitious youngster to celebrated artist, Smith was anything but at a loss for words. She generously reflected on her time with Mapplethorpe first in a conversation with curator Carol Ockman, and then with several readings during a half-hour performance of her music and written works.
Smith, restless creator, was happy for one day to be living in the past.
“I was just a little sad that Robert couldn’t see this,” she says of the "Flowers, Poetry and Light" exhibit housed at Selby Gardens until June 26. “I think we really would’ve had fun, and he would’ve also been very moved at all of the effort on so many levels.”
Mapplethorpe died in 1989, marking the end of an era for Smith. She later wrote an award-winning memoir entitled “Just Kids” about their time together, and she penned the introduction to his posthumously published book of photography.
But here, 30 years later, Smith was transported back to her time with Mapplethorpe, both from evocative studies of his photography and floral displays meant to simulate his artist’s eye. Smith’s music was also part of the exhibit, and she felt it was all done tastefully.
“I heard 'Horses,' which I haven’t heard for years,” says Smith of her famous album. “I was hearing it and thinking, ‘That voice is familiar.’ The way that it was done, none of the audio interferes with the other audio.
"It also feels very integrated with the setting. I didn’t feel as if the plants and the trees — the flora and fauna — were disrupted. The butterflies seemed happy. … I’m just saying, there was nothing disruptive. Everything felt as if it belonged there.”
And if the exhibit felt that way, so did her life’s journey. Smith said that she and Mapplethorpe met at such a vulnerable time in their lives, and they evolved together as people and as artists.
Decades later, she can’t help but look back and appreciate their time together wistfully.
“I remember a lot of it with such happiness,” she says. “Robert did not react well to being poor, hungry and not having any money. He didn’t have the same romantic attachment I had to those things. I would always have happier memories of some of our struggles. The thing that really impressed me about Robert was his work ethic. He would work 10 to 12 hours on a drawing. He would work all night every day, and even when he worked with photography — which didn’t require the labor of drawing and collages and installations — he worked every day. Right to his death. Like William Blake, he worked every single day. It was just what he did.”
But it wasn’t all that he did.
For Smith, Mapplethorpe was both an inspiration and a motivator, a lover and a friend who wanted her to have success maybe more than she did at the time. More than anything else, Smith took from Mapplethorpe confidence and self-assurance.
“Even at 20 years old, in the worst of times, he never doubted that he was an artist and that he was born to be an artist,” says Smith of Mapplethorpe. “I was always doubting and wondering: ‘Am I any good? Am I supposed to be doing this?’ I was always going through all this anguish. He didn’t agonize about that. He only agonized about not being able to maybe take care of us financially or something like that. … He insisted that I would be the same. He insisted that I didn’t wallow in doubt or second-guess myself.”
Smith finally did find that voice, and she achieved fame faster than Mapplethorpe. The rock star told the story of how she had co-written “Because the Night” with Bruce Springsteen and how she and Mapplethorpe had reacted to hearing the song take off on the radio.
Mapplethorpe teased her about achieving renown before he had, but he was happy for her.
And in truth, he had helped her find her own muse just by being his fiercely independent self.
“When I did 'Horses,' it was really because I understood the loneliness,” says Smith. “I was always different. I looked different. I acted different. I was never comfortable in my particular period of time. That’s what was also great to meet Robert. He was also different. … Maybe there’s a little hubris or presumptuousness, but I wanted to let people like me or even that had different aspects of strangeness than me to know they weren’t alone.
"It didn’t matter what it was that made people feel on the outside of society, but I just wanted to let them know they had an abstract friend. Curiously, some of my closest friends now who are younger than me, they got that message. Somebody like Michael Stipe, who has become one of my dearest friends, as a young boy, he heard that and he got the message. He did feel disenfranchised. He did feel disconnected socially. I guess he felt my extended hand.”
Smith and Mapplethorpe grew in different directions as lovers, but they never grew apart as friends. Indeed, they were deeply involved with each other all the way until Mapplethorpe took his final breath, and Smith told an anecdote of what those final days were like.
“The day before Robert died, I spoke to him. It was clear that he was dying,” she says. “He died several hours later. I asked him what I could do on his behalf as I kept going without him. ... You can imagine: He was in mortal agony. He was dying. And he said to me, ‘Well, I know you don’t like my colored flowers.’ Because I liked his black-and-white pictures more than his color pictures. But he said, ‘Could you write the introduction to my color flowers book?’ I said, ‘Of course I will.’ … He was always himself right to the end.”
Smith played several of her hit songs including “Because the Night” and “My Blakean Year” as part of her performance, and she also played Stevie Wonder’s “Blame it on the Sun” because Mapplethorpe had loved the music of Motown. And in a quieter, more reflective moment, Smith read from a letter she had written Mapplethorpe right before he died.
“You drew me from the darkest period of my young life, sharing with me the sacred mystery of what it is to be an artist,” she said. “I learned to see through you and never compose a line or draw a curve that does not come from the knowledge I derived in our precious time together.”
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