Every Friday A Peerie Yarn will look at a different female role model. They may be a role model for any reason at all, from a music legend to a fantastic author, and the piece will explore what it is that makes them someone to look up to.
Background & Music:
Patti Smith is an artist who defies convention. A punk-rock singer, a poet, an artist, a writer, a mother, a wife – Smith, like any woman, cannot be neatly placed into a box.
Born in Chicago in 1946, Smith first rose to prominence as part of the New York City punk rock movement in the 1970’s, with her debut Horses becoming one of the most important to emerge from the period.
Infusing rock’n’roll with poetry-infused lyrics, the freestyle Beat influence was clear in her early work. As detailed in her memoir, Just Kids, Smith’s foray into music was almost accidental.
Moving to New York in the late 1960’s, Smith met photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and embarked on the period of her life that she would go on to document in Just Kids.
Lovers and best friends, the pair lived in a creative bubble which saw them associate with some of the greats of the time, from Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin to Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg.
Smith has been continually active as a musician since Horses, with a total of 11 studio albums to date. The most recent, 2012’s Banga, was met with critical acclaim. She was inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame in 2007.
In 2011 Smith was awarded the prestigious Polar Music Prize:
“By devoting her life to art in all its forms, Patti Smith has demonstrated how much rock’n’roll there is in poetry and how much poetry there is in rock’n’roll.”
– Polar Music Prize
Poetry & Writing:
Whilst best known for her musical endeavors, Smith actually started out as a poet/artist and has published numerous poetry collections since the 1970’s.
She was a part of the St Mark’s Poetry Project in New York whilst living with Mapplethorpe and has continued to write poems ever since.
Smith has also forayed into writing books, releasing Just Kids in 2010. The book is a memoir which tells the story of her relationship and friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, and she wrote it to fulfill a promise to him that she would document their endeavors.
Just Kids was a huge success and Smith released a second memoir, M Train, in 2015, focusing on her late husband Fred “Sonic” Smith.
“”What will happen to us?” I asked. “There will always be us” He answered.
– Just Kids (2010)
Smith has been active in the creation of art her entire life. Her work, from paintings to photographs to installations, has been featured in various locations including the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Pompidou Center in Paris.
She has been represented by the Robert Miller Gallery since 1978. In 2002 a 300-work retrospective, Strange Messenger: The Work of Patti Smith, was held at The Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. The exhibition was then released as a book the following year.
In 2005 Smith was awarded the Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters, an esteemed French honour.
“It’s the artist’s responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labour of creation.”
– Just Kids (2010)
Another term often associated with Smith is ‘style icon’. Her androgynous look, which she has channeled throughout her career, was well ahead of it’s time in 1970’s New York.
Smith went against the grain from the beginning – little make-up, tousled hair and crisp white shirts were not what women were wearing. She put together outfits that, whether intentional or not, became an extension of her art.
Even now, in her late 60’s, Smith refuses to adhere to traditional expectations. With her long grey hair and bohemian style she proves that through it all she has always remained steadfastly true to herself.
“My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet. I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.”
– Just Kids (2010)
Smith has been involved in activism for much of her adult life, particularly in AIDS research following the death of Robert Mapplethorpe from the disease.
She contributed to AIDS benefit album No Alternative, produced by the Red Hot Organisation.
She has also released protest songs and sung at various rallies and events for a variety of causes, such as protesting against the Iraq War and calling from impeachment of George W Bush.
Smith has been affiliated with the Green Party and supported Democratic candidates in some elections.
“The power to dream, to rule, to wrestle the world from fools, it’s decreed the people rule.”
– People Have the Power (1988)
As well as a long and varied career, Smith has also raised a family. In 1980 she married Fred “Sonic” Smith, a guitarist for MC5. They had two children – Jackson, born 1982, and Jesse, born 1987.
Throughout the 1980’s Smith lived in Michigan with her family and was in a state of semi-retirement from music. Frank died in 1994 at the age of 45.
This, along with the sudden death of her brother Todd, led Smith to return to NYC in the 1990’s.
Patti Smith is a true female role model – a living embodiment of the fact that a woman can do anything and everything she wishes to. Her entire life has been dedicated to artistic pursuit and raising a family.
From her bold fashion statements to her music, Smith has the attitude of a true punk – she doesn’t care what people about her, and she is just happy to be pursuing her craft.
She has survived through a time where a lot of her creative counterparts saw their lives cut short by addiction or tragedy. She has endured these losses alongside the loss of her husband, her best friend and family members, and still she continues to work.
Patti Smith is a woman who, in many ways, was ahead of her time, and she has been a trailblazer in the creative world. A true inspiration, it is little wonder that thousands of people around the world look up to her.
“All I ever wanted, since I was a child, was to do something wonderful.”
What do you think of Patti Smith? Who is your female role model? Share your thoughts in the comments section!