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“What matters is the work”: 25 lessons for creatives in Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids.’

by Nextness published June 16, 2011 posted in Creativity

Patti Smith, "Horses" | Robert MapplethorpeShe’s a visual artist whose work has been shown in prestigious galleries; a punk goddess, performer and rock and roll star who was inducted in to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2007. And all her life she has been a writer. Patti Smith‘s most recent work is her astonishingly beautiful story of moving to New York, falling in love with artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and their creative journey, together and apart, on their way to being real artists and no longer “Just Kids.” Here are 25 lessons, pulled in Patti’s words from her amazing book, about the creative process and living a creative life.

Just Kids | Patti Smith

1. Never apologise for being an artist.

No one would see what [Robert] had seen, no one would understand. He’d had it all his life, but in the past he tried to make up for it, as if it were his fault. He compensated for this with a sweet nature, seeking approval from his father, from his teachers, from his peers. He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person… But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologise.

2. Look for the magic.

Robert would often use [the word magic] to describe us, about a successful poem or drawing, and ultimately in choosing a photograph on a contact sheet. “That’s the one with the magic,” he would say.

3. Your life is a canvas.

Robert “approached dressing like living art.”

Robert infused objects, whether for art or life, with his creative impulse… He transformed a ring of keys, a kitchen knife, or a simple wooden frame into art. He loved his work and he loved his things…

“He was the artist of my life,” Patti says.

4. Don’t fake being unique, you already are.

Robert took to describing himself as evil, partially joking or just needing to be different… “You know you don’t have to be evil to be different,” I said. “You are different. Artists are their own breed.”

5. Try not to let having to earn a living get in the way of your creative work.

Robert was increasingly despondent with his paid work. When he came home he was exhausted and dispirited and for a time stopped creating. I implored him to quit. His job and scant paycheck were not worth the sacrifice… I had no regrets taking on the job as the breadwinner. My temperament was sturdier. I could still create at night and I was proud to provide a situation allowing him to do his work without compromise.

6. The role of the artist is to see what others do not.

Robert trusted the law of empathy, by which he could, by his will, transfer himself into an object or a work of art, and thus influence the outer world… He sought to see what others did not, the projection of his imagination.

7. Don’t just be a mirror of society, transform it.

I didn’t feel for Warhol the way Robert did. His work reflected a culture I wished to avoid. I hated the soup and felt little for the can. I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it.

8. Keep your head in the clouds but your feet firmly on earth.

The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive and incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It is the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labour of creation.

9. The work is what matters.

… what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of colour and graphite scrawled upon a sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind becomes a light, life-charged.

10. Art might not always make you cool or popular.

We were a crew of misfits, even within the liberal terrain of an art school. We often joked that we were a “losers’ salon.”

11. Delight in a trusting creative partnership.

Both of us [Patti and Robert] had given ourselves to others. We vacillated and lost everyone, but we had found each other again. We wanted, it seemed, what we already had, a lover and a friend to create with, side by side. To be loyal, yet free.

12. Believe in the “blue star” of your destiny.

When Robert and Patti were young and poor, only one of them could afford to go into a gallery at a time. The other waited outside, waiting to hear about it.

He waited for me, and as we headed towards the subway he said, “One day we’ll go in together and the work will be ours.”

13. You might struggle to find your medium.

I was getting frustrated with writing; it wasn’t physical enough.

Her whole career, Patti switched between visual art, writing and music. Robert investigated drawing, painting, creating installations and collage, but found many media frustratingly slow until he found the Polaroid camera.

14. But you will find signs that point you on the right path.

Patti went to see the Doors and reacted strongly to seeing Jim Morrison perform:

I felt, watching Jim Morrison, that I could do that. I can’t say why I thought this. I had nothing in my experience to make me think that would be possible, yet I harboured that conceit.

15. You will experience low periods.

In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? Are we animating God? Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos – the Modern, the Met, the Louvre? I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself… It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.

16. You will question yourself.

I had a lot of thinking to do about the direction I should be taking. I wondered if I was doing the right work. Was it all frivolity?

17. You will get blocked.

I taped sheets of paper to the wall, but I didn’t draw. I slid my guitar under the bed. At night, alone, I just sat and waited.

18. Be suspicious of early success.

Patti did a very well-received poetry reading set to music, and the force of her presence and personality made her an immediate star. But she did not choose to follow up all the leads that came out of it at that time.

It came, I felt, too easy. Nothing had come to Robert so easily. Or for the poets I embraced. I decided to back off. I turned down the record contract…

19. Don’t pause to take spoils.

I thought of something I had learnt from earring Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mari Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battle field, he will be defeated… I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine.

20. Don’t look back.

Patti came back from a trip to France and found her landlord had appropriated a lot of her things. She reacted with equanimity.

I slipped an envelope with the black and white shots of Woman I that I had taken at the Modern into my pocket but I left behind my failed attempts at painting her portrait, rolls of canvas splashed in umber, pinks, and green, souvenirs of a gone ambition. I was too curious about the future to look back… I said goodbye to my stuff… There’s always new stuff, that’s for sure.

21. If you miss a beat, create another.

Patti was nervous to improvise while writing a play with Sam Shephard.

When we got to the part where we had to improvise an argument in a poetic language, I got cold feet. “I can’t do this,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”

“Say anything,” he said. “You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.”

“What if I mess it up? What if I screw up the rhythm?”

“You can’t,” he said. “It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”

In this simple exchange, Sam taught me the secret of improvisation, one that I have accessed my whole life.

22. The truly talented don’t need to show off.

Auditioning members for her bad, Patti found pianist Richard Sohl.

[He] was nineteen, classically trained, yet he possessed the simplicity of a truly confident musician who did not need to show off his knowledge. He was as happy playing a repetitive three-chord sequence as a Beethoven sonata.

23. Never sell out.

I thought it was funny that Robert was so concerned about the content of my work. He was worried that I wouldn’t be successful if my work was too provocative. He always wanted me to write a song that he could dance to. In the end I would point out that he was a bit like his father, wanting me to take a commercial path. But I had no interest, and I was always too crude.

24. Life is not simple.

Although they shared a lifelong love, Patti and Robert struggled with his homosexuality, and how to define the bond they had together.

I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.

25. Practise, practise, practise til you hit your stride.

As Patti gets closer to the debut of her band, you can see all the different strands of her life to that point coming together.

From the dead of winter till the renewal of spring, we grappled and prevailed until we found our stride. As we played, the songs took on a life of their own, often reflecting the energy of the people. The atmosphere, our growing confidence, and events that occurred in our immediate terrain… The night, as the saying goes, was a jewel in our crown.

Patti Smith | Annie Leibovitz
Patti Smith will be attending Cannes Lions to speak at the 5th Grey Music Legends Seminar. Grey, Jim Heekin, Tim Mellors: if your Google alerts pick this up, please let your Australian WPP cousins @STWnextness interview Patti after her talk, or at least sign our books we’ve brought all the way from Australia!

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