Past recipients of the Penn State Institute of Arts and Humanities’ medal for distinguished achievement have been writers, artists, musicians and activists. This year’s winner is all of these — and more.
Born in Chicago, rocker Patti Smith started making her mark in New York City as a major part of the 1970s punk movement. Smith is best known for her music, which includes classic albums such as “Horses” and “Easter,” and songs like “Because the Night” and “Dancing Barefoot.”
She will host a Q&A session and an acoustic performance at “An Evening with Patti Smith” at 7 p.m. Oct. 15 in Eisenhower Auditorium.
Smith, christened the “godmother of punk” by a New York Times writer, is also a well-respected poet, author and artist. Smith developed a passion for arts starting in her teens, and she soon became a renaissance woman. It’s this multi-faceted commitment to the creative world that Michael Berube says made her the perfect recipient for this year’s honor.
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Berube, a professor of literature and the director of the IAH, said asking friends “Who is your favorite living artist?” was the impetus of bringing Smith to campus. He read her memoir, “Just Kids,” and said he was fascinated with her work.
“I wasn’t aware of the extent of Patti’s work in all of this media,” Berube said. “The only question was the performance — will it be a performance, a talk, a Q&A?”
Berube said that Smith’s diverse portfolio kept him guessing. But when asked about her upcoming performance, Smith said she didn’t know what to expect either.
“We’ll see. I never plan these things,” she said. “I don’t have a particular subject. If you over-plan, you close the door on possibilities.”
She added that if organizers ask her to talk about random subjects — such as Peter Pan or dental care — she’ll look into it and plan on talking about it with the audience.
“I’ll feel the atmosphere and get a sense of the expectations,” she said. “I like the evenings to be organic.”
Smith’s longtime guitarist and collaborator Lenny Kaye will join Smith onstage, and the two will play songs, chat with the crowd, tell stories and read poems. Smith assured the Weekender that all possibilities are open.
While on campus, Smith will visit an art class, interview with WPSU, attend a dinner and be awarded the medal before her performance. And although her resume boasts a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, a National Book Award and an array of recognitions from the past 40 years, Smith said she is always proud — and often surprised — when her work is awarded.
“It means that your work and ideas have reached more and more people,” she said. “It’s nice to see what touches people.”
Berbue said the overall goal is “to bring artists and performers and writers of the first order to Penn State. (We bring) people that you encounter and remember the rest of your life. We want to showcase what it means to have made market distinction.”
“This kind of thing is once a year,” he said. “But Patti Smith is once in a lifetime.”