Art School(ed): Things I learned from Patti Smith’s lecture


Each year, the RISD Museum presents a legendary guest lecturer for the Gail Silver Memorial Lecture series. Past lecturers have included photographer Sally Mann, Soundsuit inventor Nick CaveNew Yorker staff cartoonist Roz Chast, conceptual artist Jenny Holzer, and feminist sculptor Lynda Benglis. This year, the lecture series’ announcement caused quite the commotion: Patti Smith was coming to Providence.

This annual lecture tends to sell out within minutes, but in some twist of fate I scored a ticket. I read Smith’s memoir Just Kids a few years ago, but remained wary of the book because of the ghostwriter rumors surrounding it. However, in the span of Patti Smith’s hour-and-45-minute lecture, I had been converted: I am now a full-fledged Patti Smith fangirl. Classic RISD student, I know.

As a memoirist, Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, photographer, poet, and godmother of punk, Patti Smith knows how to command a stage. She recited her own poems, read from her memoir, and jammed out to her songs, all while maintaining a conversational tone and keeping it totally cool. She started the night off with her poem “The Lovecrafter,” as a tribute to H.P. Lovecraft and the city of Providence. But had I not known Smith’s entire curriculum vitae before seeing her speak, I would have thought that she reigned the stand-up comedy world, seeing as she cracked jokes at her old age and overall messiness throughout the lecture.

Here are the three most resonant vignettes that Patti Smith bestowed upon us at the 37th annual Gail Silver Memorial Lecture, after the jump.


3. Her recipe for lettuce soup.

Patti Smith shared an unrivaled recipe appropriate for vegetarians and omnivores alike. As she read a few excerpts from Just Kids to the audience, she interrupted herself during one description from her time living in a small apartment with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (pronounced May-ple-thorpe, not Map-ple-thorpe— you’ll thank me someday when you’re in an Art History section): “We hadn’t much money, but we were happy. Robert took part-time jobs, and he took care of the apartment. Robert was a much better housekeeper than I was. I did the laundry and I made our meals, which were very limited. My specialty was lettuce soup— alright, I know you’re just dying to know the recipe to lettuce soup.” So go ahead, treat yourself to a gourmet dish fit for a rock star/starving artist:

  • Boil water.
  • Throw in a few bouillon cubes, vegetable-flavored for vegetarians, chicken-flavored if you’re in need of some protein.
  • Maybe throw in some salt or pepper. Preferably sea salt.
  • Take your head of lettuce, cut it up into quarters, and throw it into the boiling water.
  • Immediately turn off the stove, and your lettuce soup is ready to be served! Bon appetit!

2. Model for your amateur photographer friends! You might just make it to the big leagues!

A member of the audience asked Patti Smith if Robert Mapplethorpe ever photographed her. She revealed that when Mapplethorpe started shooting with his first camera, a Polaroid, Smith was his premiere model. He followed her everywhere, endlessly photographing her until it nearly drove her insane. One night, when she could no longer stand having her portrait taken, she protested and climbed on top of the roof of the Chelsea Hotel, where she and Mapplethorpe were living at the time. He followed her up onto the roof, with his camera in hand, yelling “but it’s for art! it’s for art!” Smith retorted,  “I hate art!” as Mapplethorpe snapped a photo. The photograph now resides in the Museum of Modern Art’s collection.

1. “Once a year, save up your money, and get your teeth professionally cleaned.” 

Patti Smith came to RISD with only one topic on the agenda: dentistry. Growing up in South Jersey in the 1950s, Patti Smith said that the most affordable dentists were retired army dentists who were rough with their tools and did not know much about hygiene. Smith did not even know about professional teeth cleaning until she was 50, but she wanted all students and spritely youths to know about it now. These days, Smith gets her teeth cleaned four times a year, and at 66 years old, she is the first person in her family to still have all of her own teeth. So, make an annual appointment with a dentist. Do it for Patti Smith. 

Images via and via.

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