Whether she was meeting with students in the afternoon or accepting the 2013 Hepburn Medal in the evening, Patti Smith showed the warmth, humility, and plain-spoken authenticity when she came to campus last week that makes her memoir Just Kids such an irresistible read. And though at times when she spoke you could hear the strain of too much travel and not enough rest, when Smith sang, her voice still conveyed the passion and urgency of 70s punk.
For pictures from the events, visit our online photo album.
In awarding the Hepburn Medal to Smith, Bryn Mawr President Jane McAuliffe noted that while on the surface it may appear odd that the “godmother of punk” was receiving an award from a college conceived of as a women’s Oxford or Harvard, Bryn Mawr has always been “known for its ‘cussed individualists.’”
“I suspect Bryn Mawr actually has a punk spirit operating underneath the skin of these Gothic walls,” McAuliffe said.
Laura Reeve ’13
Amanda Beardall ’14
Luciana Fortes ’13
Ivy Gray-Klein ’14
Hannah Smith ’14
McAuliffe also noted that Smith’s music “spoke especially powerfully to young women seeking to pursue their own path without compromising their sense of self and vision.”
Smith herself touched on these themes earlier in the day when speaking to students. She recalled a conversation she had with author William S. Burroughs when she was an unknown poet staying at the Chelsea Hotel in which Burroughs advised her to “build your name.”
“But my name’s Smith,” she recalled telling the famed writer.
“Then you’ll have to work twice as hard,” he replied.
Smith went on to talk about how in building her name she always tried to stay true to herself and her own artistic vision.
“It’s not like I didn’t make a lot of mistakes in my life, but they were my mistakes,” she told students.
At both events, Smith read from her memoir and sang. Students were treated to “My Blakean Year” “Grateful,” and a stunning a cappella version of “Because the Night” that included audience backing vocals for the chorus. Smith reprised “My Blakean Year” for the medal ceremony. For the student event she also took questions from the audience.
In accepting her award, Smith noted that Katharine Hepburn was a role model of artistic independence for her generation. She also spoke of a more personal connection.
Smith recalled how one day when she was working at Scribner’s book store in New York, Hepburn came in and casually browsed through the aisles, occasionally commenting “Spence would have liked this,” in reference to her departed love, Spencer Tracy.
Several years later, Smith found herself doing the same thing as she browsed the racks of a clothing store and thinking of her recently departed husband, Fred “Sonic” Smith. At that moment, she thought back to Hepburn and the unintended lesson she’d given her on grieving gracefully.
“She [Hepburn] nourished my youth when I dreamed of being an artist and writer but she also, in her own way, helped me get through the saddest and most human part of my existence. So thank you Katharine and I will cherish my medal,” Smith said before launching into her evening performance.
Journalist Kim Masters ’76 served as master of ceremonies for the award ceremony and Hepburn Center Director Katherine Rowe and WXPN host Michaela Majoun gave remarks prior to handing the stage over to McAuliffe for the awarding of the medal.
During her remarks, Masters touched on a section of Just Kids Smith read from earlier in the day during the student event. In the book, Smith writes about going to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a 12-year-old and being inspired by the artwork.
“In the moment, she knew she had been transformed,” said Masters. “She recognized that there was such a thing as an artist and she yearned to be one. I like to imagine that students from Bryn Mawr were visiting the museum that day.
“This was around the time when the great archaeology professor, Brunhilde Ridgway, first started to teach at the College, and she sent her students – including, eventually, me – to the museum regularly. So perhaps even as Patti was astounded by Picasso, a Bryn Mawr student was encountering ancient Egyptian treasures under the same roof and undergoing a transformation of her own.”
“For this third arts medal, the nominating committee expanded our vision,” said Rowe. “We asked ourselves: What arts have had the most impact in the last fifty years? Who has broken the rules in ways that really matter?
“As we considered this, we came to understand that a hallmark of creativity in our new century is going to be the ability to work across artistic modes. In awarding the 2013 Hepburn Medal to Patti Smith, we recognize an artist who exemplifies the rare ability to maintain her intensity and integrity of vision across many different media. From the electrical atmosphere of punk to the reflective pages of memoir, Smith has sought modes of expression that amplify her voice.”
“Patti Smith’s importance to contemporary music simply can’t be overstated,” said Majoun. “As a founder of punk music, a rock poet, and an iconic American musician of any era and any genre. And as a woman who strode right into the male world of rock and roll and became a major force, she’s an unparalleled trailblazer.”
“I read about Patti Smith in Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest rock albums of all times, right when I was first thinking about applying to Bryn Mawr,” Ulaby told the students. “She was one of the only female solo artists on the list. After listening to Horses, I was left with the impression of Smith as my ideal Bryn Mawr woman . . . . And her youthful self reminds me so much of the women I went to college with, sensitive, knowing, pained by — but invigorated — by the world.”
Attendees to the Hepburn medal ceremony enjoyed a “backstage party” at which they had a chance to meet Smith and mingle with each other. In addition to her performance, Smith signed copies of Just Kids and posed for photos with students in the afternoon. Participants at both events were encouraged to use the hashtag #BMCHepburn on Twitter. To see reactions to the event on social media view our Storify.