A Tribute

Patti Smith Performs at Selby Gardens and Reminisces About Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe

The related exhibit, Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light is on view now at Selby Gardens.

By Kay Kipling February 16, 2022

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A crowd at Selby Gardens applauds Patti Smith.

Image: Cliff Roles

It’s not every day Patti Smith comes to town.

The singer-songwriter-author has been in Sarasota at least once before, some years ago during a Sarasota Film Festival week when she performed at a downtown restaurant. This time, she was here to share memories of her longtime friend and lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, in connection with the exhibition Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith: Flowers, Poetry, and Light, on view at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens starting this past weekend and running through June 26.

It was a chance for Smith and Mapplethorpe fans to gain more insight into both artists, who first met in 1967 when they were young, poor and struggling to find their way in New York City. And it was a chance for Smith to tour the exhibit. “I loved it,” she told the crowd gathered Tuesday evening to hear her speak and sing at the gardens. “I’m a little sad that Robert [who died in 1989] couldn’t see this. He would have been moved by so much effort.” She also said that the audio portions of the exhibit, which feature some of her most famous lyrics, “feel very integrated with the setting. In one section, I heard Horses [her debut album, from 1975], which I hadn’t heard in years, and thought, ‘That voice is familiar.’”

Patti Smith in performance.

Smith’s voice was certainly familiar to many in her audience, who listened as she shared memories of her relationship with Mapplethorpe during a conversation with Selby’s curator-at-large, Dr. Carol Ockman, in the first half of Tuesday evening’s program. “I remember almost everything about Robert,” Smith said. “I met him so young, and we evolved together.” Unlike herself, Smith said, “Robert didn’t react well to being poor and hungry. [She wrote about their lives together in the 2010 National Book Award winner for nonfiction, Just Kids, from which she also read Tuesday.] I always liken that time to the play The Fantasticks, where the two young people have to hurt each other a little bit to become themselves.”

Mapplethorpe, she recalled, was driven to produce and succeed, working 10 to 12 hours a day, first on drawings, then turning to photography. And like the poet they both admired, William Blake, “He worked almost right to his death.” He always knew he was an artist, Smith explained. “He had this self-confidence, even at 20.He never doubted he was an artist, and he never agonized about his self-worth. So he insisted I be the same, and not second-guess myself. I was a bit of a late bloomer; I’m better now than I was. But Robert had a short lifeline; he had to be great early.”

The Selby Gardens exhibit, which features several of Mapplethorpe’s famous black and white flower photos, along with inventive horticultural displays created by Selby staff to pay homage to the works, is especially important to Smith. “I love botanical gardens,” she said, “and I’ve visited them all over the world.” That was one reason for her visit here, she said. Another: “To be connected with Robert is very important to me.” And third, she joked, “It’s really cold in New York” right now.

Smith and Mapplethorpe remained friends long after he came out as gay in a place and time where AIDS was a new and serious threat. (The photographer died of complications from the disease.) She visited him shortly before he died, and said that is when she asked him what she could do on his behalf. "And he said to me, ‘I know you don’t like my color flowers’—I liked his black and white ones better—but would you write the introduction to my Flowers book?’ And then he asked me to write our story. After a bit of time passed, it was a revelation, when I saw the color photos through his eyes.”

Smith and her fellow musician, Tony Shanahan, then took the stage together to deliver several songs by Smith, including “Wing,” from her album Gone Again; “My Blakean Year,” from Trampin’; “Wild Leaves," from Dream of Life; and, of course, the hit that first made her a recording success in collaboration with Bruce Springsteen, “Because the Night.” But she also sang the Stevie Wonder song “Blame It on the Sun,” because, she said, “Robert loved Stevie Wonder. Motown was his favorite music.”

Here are just a few images from the exhibition.

A tree in frame, near Selby's Welcome Center.

A view in the Tropical Conservatory.

Poetry Walk along the Mangrove Walkway.

Gallery Exposed

North Gallery of Selby's Museum of Botany & the Arts, displaying Robert Mapplethorpe's work.

For more information, visit selby.org.

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