Roots run deep

Mills College holds the most extensive library archive anywhere of work created or inspired by poet and performer Patti Smith. A campus exhibition this fall displays a trove of rare materials and exposes the deep connections that influence her work.

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By Dawn Cunningham ’85, photos by Teresa Tam

An extensive exhibition of art, text, music, and memorabilia by and about Patti Smith exposes the profound artistic connections that infuse the work of the legendary poet-performer-artist By Dawn Cunningham ’85 Photos by Teresa Tam  One of my first off-syllabus book purchases as a student at Mills was Babel, a collection of poems by Patti Smith. By that time, in 1981, Smith had earned critical praise, dedicated fans, and considerable notoriety for her defiant, surreal hybrid of rock and poetry. She’d recorded four influential albums and published half a dozen books. The New York Times described her as “a working‐class kid who took off from the New Jersey backwater to become a poète maudit in New York City” and a “shaman” who “bridges this world, the underworld, and the heavens, and brings back news from the shadows.” She referred to her music simply as rock-and-roll, though she would later be labelled by others as the “godmother of punk.”

My first exposure to Smith was through her music: “Because the Night,” her top-40 single written with Bruce Springsteen, made it onto radio playlists even in Hawaii, where I grew up. But it was her poetry that made me a fan—and provided the subject matter for a term paper in my modern American poetry class. Astonishing, unnerving, exciting, Babel dared me to connect with a mind that shifted gender identities, imagined subversive sexualities, combined sacrilege with reverence for the divine. It also piqued my curiosity about the artists and authors Smith invoked in her writing—such as the 19th-century poet Arthur Rimbaud, artists Marcel Duchamp and Georgia O’Keefe, and guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Smith used the power of poetry and art and rock-and-roll to celebrate outcasts and misfits, to unify, to seek to reverse the Babel myth of scattered peoples speaking a confusion of tongues. And she honored the heroes who inspired her to try.  

Yet when I first read Babel, Smith’s star seemed like it might already be fading: she’d recently exited the New York music and art scene to start a family with guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith in a Detroit suburb. She spent 16 years there, during which time she recorded just one album and published a single collection of stories and poems.  

In the late 1990s, when I was living in New York City, I caught Smith in concert at Lincoln Center. Her husband had died a few years earlier, and she’d moved back to New York. She was once again on a creative roll, recording music, touring with her band, publishing poetry, and exhibiting art. Among other motivations, she had two children to support.  

Since her re-emergence, Smith has released six albums and a dozen more books of writing and art. A common theme in this later work is her experience of loss: of her husband, brother, mother, and friends, including the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, with whom she lived in New York in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Yet her grief is balanced by hope: for social and political change, for transcendence and redemption through art. Although she sings about the legacy of slavery in the US, the war in Iraq, and climate change, among other issues, the lived world remains a place where she finds signs of the sacred. “Blessedness is within us all,” begins her poem “Reflecting Robert” in The Coral Sea (1996).  

Over the decades, Smith’s corpus has brought her a level of popularity that few multidisciplinary artists have ever attained. Her fans, from Baby Boomers to Millennials, regard Smith—who turns 70 at the end of this year—as a sort of current-day saint. “She is my Goddess. Touching my face at a show in November 2015,” one fan posted on Facebook in April; “Days ago Patti Smith in Hyde Park reminded us that we are holy,” another wrote on Twitter in July.  

Even dispassionate institutional committees have showered her with acclaim. She’s been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and awarded Sweden’s Polar Music Prize, considered by some to be the Nobel Prize of music. She holds the insignia of Commander of the Order of the Arts and Letters, the French government’s highest honor for artists and writers. She won the National Book Award for Just Kids, a memoir about her friendship with Mapplethorpe (the book is currently being made into a TV series for Showtime). Her photographs and drawings have been featured in solo exhibitions at the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Connecticut.  

To understand Patti Smith as a writer, artist, performer, and cultural phenomenon, there’s no better place to visit than Mills—especially this fall. The College holds the most extensive library archive anywhere of work created or inspired by Smith, including her poetry and memoirs, books about her, photographs taken by and of her, drawings, albums, concert posters, and a trove of other materials. From September 14 through December 11, 2016, selected items from the Patti Smith Collection are on exhibit for the first time ever in the Mills College Art Museum and the F.W. Olin Library.  

The exhibition, Root Connection: 20 Years of The Patti Smith Collection, not only demonstrates the depth and breadth of Smith’s talent, it also explores her relationships to other artists and writers. “You’ll see how she has drawn together various influences, such as Arthur Rimbaud, and how she has influenced  other people,” says Janice Braun, library director, special collections librarian, and co-curator of the exhibition. “You’ll also see her as an innovator in all the different media she uses and in creating her own persona,” observes Stephanie Hanor, art museum director and co-curator. “These materials—even those that were produced by others—tell her life story in a way that’s almost diaristic.”

Hanor adds, “The Patti Smith Collection is a good fit for Mills. Being a woman doing what she has been doing is pioneering. The level of experimentation and interdisciplinary practice in her work goes to the heart of the fine arts at Mills.”

Among the materials on display in Root Connection are a rare first edition of kodak, a 1972 chapbook of Smith’s poetry, in which she wrote a dedication to her friend and fellow poet/ musician Jim Carroll; a gelatin silver print, signed by Smith, from a trip to French Guiana inspired by the writer Jean Genet; a Norman Seeff photograph of Smith and Mapplethorpe in 1969; a manuscript of Just Kids with Smith’s handwritten edits; and a signed poster for Smith’s performance in 2006 at legendary New York club CBGB on its last night in business.

A screening room features short films by directors who worked with Smith in the 1970s and the past decade. These films show Smith’s reactions to the people and places with which she feels an artistic or emotional connection, from Genet to downtown New York to Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain. Listening stations play recorded music and poetry readings by Smith. A display case holds materials produced or traded by Smith’s fans, including T-shirts, fanzines, and a copy of Smith’s high school yearbook.

Robert Byler and Janice Braun examine items from the Patti Smith

In many ways, Root Connection is a testament not only to one woman’s art, but also to the power of collecting and remembering. Though the act of recollection takes center stage in Smith’s memoirs, Just Kids and M Train (published last October), it’s also a source of strength in her visual art, poetry, and music. She makes a practice of gathering mementos of people she admires: for example, the exhibition includes her photos of Mapplethorpe’s house slippers and Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet slippers (she has also photographed Frida Kahlo’s crutches, Robert Bolaño’s chair, and Sylvia Plath’s grave, which appear in M Train). The connection and reverence that fans feel for Smith is inspired—at least in part, I think—by her habit of connecting to and honoring other artists.

“It is hard to think of another artist in any medium who is at once so completely original and so persistently devoted to acknowledging influence and paying tribute,” wrote A.O. Scott in The New York Times style magazine in 2011. “To know Patti Smith is to know her people.”

On another level, as Braun points out, “Root Connection reflects a collecting activity and a collector.” That collector is Robert Byler, a library assistant at Mills, photographer, and the third co-curator of the exhibition. “Part of what’s unique about our Patti Smith Collection is that it comes from Robert’s perspective and his interest,” says Hanor. Almost every item in the collection—and in the exhibition—was procured by Byler and donated by him to Mills over the past 20 years.

Byler discovered Smith when he was a middle-school student. He spotted her 1973 poetry collection Wïtt (pronounced “White”) on a bookstore stand. Though he knew nothing about her, he bought the book for its stunning cover, a Mapplethorpe photo of Smith. “Once I started reading it, I liked all the history and the people referenced in her poetry. Her work inspired me to go and find out who Pasolini and Rimbaud were.”

When Byler’s father died in 1995, he chose a poem by Smith, “True Music,” to read at the funeral. By then, he had been on the library staff at Mills for three years, and noticed that the library did not have any of Smith’s books. Meanwhile, he was also working in UC Berkeley’s library preservation department, transferring the archives of Beat poets to microfilm. “Everyone was collecting the Beats, and I was concerned that libraries were going to skip over poets of the 1970s, like Patti Smith,” recalls Byler.

“I asked Janice Braun, ‘Could I start a Patti Smith collection here?’ She said yes. I didn’t know exactly what that would entail, but I felt that it was very important to leave something for the generations that follow you.” He also felt, instinctively, that such a collection belonged at Mills. “I love Mills and I love the students. The importance of the College’s music and English departments probably also influenced my decision.”

Byler began work on the collection around the time Smith moved back to New York and relaunched her artistic career. He scoured the Internet, combed through bookstores, and tracked down publishers to find rare or unique editions, broadsides, manuscripts, photos, posters, recordings, and more. “At the time I started, you could still get rare items at a fair price. But in the mid 2000s, the value of Smith’s items really soared. Now they are just not for sale. There’s no way I could have created this collection today.” He also printed out online content that is no longer accessible except through the Mills archives, including pieces Smith wrote for her website in remembrance of people who had died. Finally, Byler donated photos by Smith and of Smith that were part of his personal collection. “I didn’t want to keep them in my house, because I love them and want them to be seen,” he says.

“All I wanted was to have a good collection in the library—a collection that would help students write research papers and discover the different artists connected to Smith. I think I’ve fulfilled that.”

The full collection is housed in the Heller Rare Book Room. Braun says it’s one of the most comprehensive collections in the library—as comprehensive as the Darius Milhaud archive, which has become a key resource for Milhaud scholars. Although the Patti Smith Collection is already available for use by students and other researchers, Braun says, “Within the next few months, when we have a completed finding aid, the visibility and use of the collection will certainly increase. Currently, all the books and published material are catalogued and available for research.”

Root Connection is, in essence, the collection’s coming out party. Hanor says, “One of the things that’s fun about a project like this exhibition is making what you have visible and accessible. We’re balancing our responsibility for the safe-keeping and cataloging of our resources with making people aware of what we have. It’s great when we can put this work out there and see our materials used and appreciated.”

Over the past 35 years, my copy of Babel has shuttled with me across continents and oceans. It’s dog-eared and marked up, and the cover wore off in the course of writing this article. My copies of Just Kids and M Train exist only on e-readers, and Smith’s music only on my iPod. All that I own of Smith’s work is ephemeral, destined to disappear. But because of Robert Byler’s work as a collector and Mills’ stewardship of its library holdings, that doesn’t matter. The Patti Smith Collection exists so that I and many others influenced and intrigued by her can have an enduring point of connection to Smith and to each other.