Patti Smith received the Katherine Hepburn Medal yesterday, a distinguished award given out by Bryn Mawr College to women “who change their worlds: those whose lives, work, and contributions embody the intelligence, drive, and independence of the four-time Oscar winner. Award recipients are chosen on the basis of their commitment and contributions to the Hepburn women’s greatest passions—the arts, civic engagement, and women’s health.” (http://news.brynmawr.edu/2012/09/27/patti-smith-to-be-awarded-bryn-mawrs-katharine-hepburn-medal-on-feb-7/)
I had never heard of Patti Smith before this event. On campus, the overall feeling was that of extreme experiences: there were those who shared my situation and had also never heard of her, and there were those (such as a close friend of mine) who were ultra-excited, maybe even a bit obsessed. I grabbed myself a ticket, because: 1) I was required to attend by my acting class and, 2) I never miss an opportunity to find out about a new artist, or any person who is as admired and respected as Patti Smith. So there I was yesterday, sitting in one of the green chairs that make up the emerald audience of Goodhart Theatre, anxious to see what would come. I had heard of many things: that she was the queen of punk rock, that she was a bad-ass, and that she was a writer as well. I heard of her abundant days of creativity at the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, where many other artists resided and collaborated with each other, and of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (whom I had also never heard of), which she wrote about in her book entitled “Just Kids”.
Sitting in my green chair, I was full of things I had never heard of, full of things I didn’t know. But now, I do know one thing: Patti Smith is AWESOME. I know I sound like a little kid here, but that’s because the excitement is nothing short of true. I thought I was in for a major rock concert when I signed up for this endeavor, but that’s not at all how the show played out. It was much more serene, subtle, intimate. Basically, wonderful. I felt like we got an hour of Patti Smith herself, as opposed to an hour of her rock-star persona. I mean, what do I know? I’m just a recent convert! But, what I do know is that her performance felt so personal, so real. To give you a clearer picture, she only played three songs for us. The rest of the time, she talked about her experience, how joyful she was to be at Bryn Mawr receiving this award, she read some excerpts of her writing and even opened up the floor for the audience to ask questions. I mean, could it get better than that?
Little by little I found myself getting more fascinated, intrigued, and drawn-in to the person standing in front of me on that stage, and the feeling just increased as the evening went on. Before the event, I had no expectations. I came in with a blank page in my mind, letting the experience write itself naturally in my brain, letting it sink in my body, and allowing it to permeate into my soul. The result was, I was surrounded by an energy connecting me to this personality who seemed at the same time very distant, due to the respect and admiration I started developing for her, but most of all very close and relatable, due to her humanistic aspect and openness about her flaws and weaknesses. She didn’t seem to hide or want to portray any specific image of herself. She was just there, Patti Smith, the way she was. We tend to idolize rock artists and equalize superstar to superhero, but the humility of Patti Smith was what made her my favorite rock star last night.
She spoke of her hardships, the hard work she had to put in to do what she does, her dreaded fear of doing something embarrassing in front of someone, the choices she had to make and the consequential mistakes that came along with those that weren’t the best ones. Last night, she chose to place herself in this vulnerable position to show us that despite all the difficulties, she was standing there, not as a perfect being but as a person as a whole, who had weaknesses and doubts just like the rest of us but who was able to accomplish all that she has accomplished because she didn’t give up. She didn’t boast about her achievements, but rather she chose to emphasize all that she had learned from her hardships and from being authentic to who she was. She said: “I’m not saying I didn’t make mistakes, but hey, at least they were my mistakes. They weren’t the mistakes of someone else’s vision of me”. The choices she made sometimes meant less fame and fortune, but in the long run, it payed off, since she was being true to herself. This was based on some precious advice she had gotten in her life, which said that she had to “build her name”.
So, I invite us all to build our won “Patti Smith’s”, finding out who we are and praising who that person is every day. Don’t let fear or embarrassment stop you because, according to the rock star at hand, “everybody’s gonna look stupid some time or another”. I mean, what better advice to give college students trying to figure out what they want and getting ready to go out into the world?
I want to thank Ms. Smith for her stories last night, and to Bryn Mawr College, for making me acquainted with this genius. As an aspiring artist, it gives me so much hope to see someone who has followed her dreams and been true to herself, no matter how unforgiving the life of an artist can be.
I know the majority of her pictures show her making a serious face, flaunting her coolness, during the time when she said it wasn’t cool to smile, but the image I have of Patti Smith is of this happy lady with a big grin, who gets happy just from eating a meal she loves and by making people laugh.
You know, it’s funny–she reminds a lot of this girl who I know quite well…