THE BLOG
01/22/2014 01:05 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2014

Returning for the Spring Semester, Inspired by Judy and Patti

This week I return to the classroom, having enjoyed time away from campus on a sabbatical graciously granted by our board of trustees. In anticipation of making the most of this precious time, I had assembled a long list of books to read, films to watch, and music to study. I didn't make my way through half the list, but I was able to spend time with the work of Judy Garland and Patti Smith. Like students at our university, I had the time and energy to consider the intersecting themes and patterns in the work of these artists: Creativity. Generosity. Poetry.

The night is bitter,
The stars have lost their glitter,
The wind grows colder,
And suddenly you're older.

Judy Garland sings these words to us on her 1961 album recorded live at Carnegie Hall in New York City. "The Man Who Got Away," a song by written Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin, was made famous by Garland in the 1954 film A Star is Born. I was unfamiliar with her work before my sabbatical, but I had been curious about the film and album for some time. Inside these intriguing artifacts from our midcentury culture I discovered a most plaintive song:

There's just no let up the lifelong day.
Every since the world began.
There is nothing sadder than
A one-man woman looking for
The man that got away.

Even in the artifice of a 1950s musical number, one can feel Garland's generosity toward the musicians in the film. A special "extras" DVD shares multiple takes of this scene filmed over a six-month period. In each take Garland extends herself to her band as she strolls through their stage configuration. In some takes, helping a brass player with his mute. Generously acknowledging all their playing.

In the Carnegie Hall recording of "The Man" one can hear her magnificent voice weaving between dreamy trombones and brushes on cymbals. And Garland's generosity clearly extends to the audience as well throughout the whole concert. She shares stage banter, tales for a recent European tour, and candid confessions about her physical appearance. Near the end of the show she is heard fielding requests from the audience, saying: "Let's do them all! We'll stay all night." Often seen as a tragic figure, her unique singing technique embraced the listener, often sadly, but always with great generosity.

Traveling downtown from Carnegie Hall later in the 1960s, you find Patti Smith at the Chelsea Hotel. Her 2012 autobiography, Just Kids, brings us into the world of a Rimbaud-loving artist who finds herself in New York City just as American society began its great spiral out of Vietnam and Watergate into a more jaded time. Most know Smith emerged as rock and roll's poet laureate in the mid-1970s, but this book is much more about the generosity shown to her on her decade-long journey as an unknown poet, visual artist and musician. She intersects with artists like Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Sam Shepard, all of whom were generous to Smith in some manner. Most compelling, however, is her choice to make her relationship with the artist Robert Mapplethorpe the book's central story.

Mapplethorpe may be best known for his provocative photography exhibits, but Smith's book is really devoted to the very generous relationship they had as lovers, roommates and artists. Each day they would emerge from their small Chelsea Hotel room and immerse themselves in late 1960s New York. They returned to their room at the end of the day, inspired by what they had seen, heard or found, creating by trial and error in the small confines of a very dingy space.

Although they travelled far from their Catholic upbringing, they were grounded in similar faith-based family backgrounds in New Jersey (Patti) and Long Island (Robert).
Patti sorted things out for them in the early years, as they struggled to find shelter and food. Even with those considerable challenges, they placed the creative process at the center of their relationship, finding inspiration in each other's passion for artistic expression in whatever form.

He was her Michelangelo and she was his muse. As things developed over the decade, Patti emerged first as an international artistic voice. But this is not what Smith wants to spend time on in the book. She wants us to know about these two kids. Young artists who were driven to develop an artistic voice while exploring the world's modern art capital, having only each other to depend on.

When Mapplethorpe died in 1989, a causality of the AIDS epidemic, he was remembered by Smith:

Little emerald bird
As you light afar
It is true I heard
God is where you are
Little emerald soul
Little emerald eye
Little emerald bird
We must say good-bye

For a decade they devoted all their energies to sustaining each other on every level. Generous to each other from the beginning to a difficult end.

Taking time to learn about Garland and Smith might seem a luxury. What possible use could I make of these works in teaching a graduate leadership class or in my day-to-day work as a university president? Fair question. 2014 is a time when liberal arts education is under siege from politicians, media pundits, and, at times, educators. Higher education is on the defensive at the same time that is working on its most important task: character formation. Preparing our students to be thoughtful, ethical and critical thinkers in a world that grows increasingly opaque.

How often do we reflect on what it means to be generous to another? What it means to be inspired by another and how vital this can be to one's own creativity? It takes energy to extend one's attention to another given the chaotic rhythm and dynamics of modern life. I often wonder what role models we are to our students on this level. Yes, these thoughts came from my sabbatical and I am now responsible to bring them into my classroom.

While I will never be an expert on Garland or Smith, I was deeply moved by their work and I will never forget that my study of how their artistic lives intersected in New York City in the 1960s provoked a deeper reflection on my responsibility to be generous of my time and attention to our students, faculty and staff.