When Patti Smith published a memoir, Just Kids, I swore I wouldn't read it. It won the National Book Award and then....really...anything that receives Titanic-worthy publicity just totally turns me off. But then someone I really love read it, and loved it, and said it was so worth the time.
Just Kids is about a lot of things, but it spins from an account of her romantic and artistic relationship with the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. I thought I had read everything I wanted to read about Robert. I didn't want to delve into another autopsy about the AIDS, Art, the NEA, and censorship. I've had enough of that in my day job to last me a lifetime.
But the book was so not about that.
It was about their relationship; and it was beautifully written. (If I could tell the story of my great loves like she did...) Infinitely more complex than a simple account of their love and creative partnership, Smith was able to unpack how their love for one another shaped each other's artistic work.
And they tried everything - writing; drawing; photography; jewelry design; theatre; performance poetry; installation art; fashion and on and on and on. I loved to read about their apartments; installations made from clothing, jewelry, strange objects they had collected from second-hand stores around New York City.
I envy that. A relationship where you can share what you've written and have someone respond with love, ideas, support. That kind of love doesn't really happen very often, and when it does, the surviving partner will often write a book about it. Joan Didion's Year of Magical Thinking being a recent one.
I loved to read about how Patti Smith's creative life changed once she cut off her hair.
And I was touched by how Smith wrote about the ebb and flow of the relationship with Mapplethorpe over the years:
"Both of us had given ourselves to others. We vacillated and lost everyone, but we had found one another again. We wanted, it seemed, what we already had, a lover and a friend to create with, side by side. To be loyal, yet be free...
Robert would greet me, impatient to show me something he was working on. One evening, having read my notebook, he designed a totem for Brian Jones. It was shaped like an arrow, with rabbit hair for the White Rabbit, a line from Winnie the Pooh, and a locket-sized portrait of Brian. We finished it together and hung it over our bed. "Nobody sees as we do, Patti." he said again. Whenever he said things like that, for a magical space of time, it was if we were the only two people in the world."
I know, right?! I dare you to find me a writer or an artist who doesn't want that kind of love.....