The archetype of the starving artist, subsiding in some run-down garret and sustained by art, poetry and cheap liquor alone, is a perverse romanticism, and yet one with seemingly endless appeal. Nevertheless, anyone in the pursuit of a creative life, without the protective cushion of wealthy patrons (or parents) or some other form of independent means, will find themselves from time to time wanting in the finances department. In these times of need, the creative mind will find the means to make the most of what is available, however meagre, and in The Starving Artists Survival Guide we aim to chronicle the advice and occasional last resorts of such mavericks.
We begin with a concoction created by the godmother of punk and all-round poetic priestess, Patti Smith. Each year, the RISD Museum in Providence, Rhode Island, presents a legendary guest lecturer for the Gail Silver Memorial Lecture series. In 2013, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame initiate, photographer, model and muse took to the stage to share reflections on her early artistic life with Robert Mapplethorpe in New York, chronicled in her magnificent memoir Just Kids.
Patti, a penniless poet, had left New Jersery for Manhattan not only to pursue the artistic ideal or creative career of which, in hindsight, it may seem she was destined but also in search of work of a more practical kind. Her evocative account of scraping by on a small salary earned in short-lived stints in various dead-end jobs, while the pair rehearsed their future glory, reads somewhere between a strained vagabond existence and the most beautiful bohemian fairy tale.
“I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one.”
Along with poetic musings on the nature of art and interrogations of the soul, the book is littered with references to their hunger, both literal and figurative; of day-old bread and other scavenged means of sustenance, and of her speciality dish during the artists time together: Lettuce Soup.
“This delicacy consisted of chicken bullion garnished with lettuce leaves”
During her presentation, sensing that the audience must be dying for more detail on her intriguing culinary concoction, she interrupts a tale of the two legends-in-the-making and their time together in broken down Brooklyn apartments - with characteristic wit - to share the recipe. Should you find yourself yearning to try this repast, we’ve taken the liberty of recreating it.
Heat a pan filled with water on the stove and add to it a pinch of salt (preferably sea salt if the budget will allow), a dash of pepper and one bouillon cube. Take a one-day-old head of lettuce and remove the dirty or otherwise dishevelled outer leaves; chop into quarters and quickly toss it into the pan. Remove from the heat and serve immediately, with optimism.
(Serving suggestion is our own)
It may not seem the most appetising of dishes, but nonetheless, it sustained the pair so that their little money could be spent on the more necessary articles which fuelled their creative life. Fishing tackle supplies with which they made jewellery, camera film, inspiring art books and volumes of poetry. Indeed, though the recipe may not be one that many are willing to recreate, the book itself is a spellbinding testament to
her determination to forgo the trappings and luxuries of a conventional, hum-drum life in pursuit of her true priorities: her hunger for knowledge, understanding and fulfilment.
That being said, it would seem the eminent Mrs Smith’s tastes have remained starkly simple in spite of her success. If her later reflections in M Train are anything to go by, it appears that she subsides mainly on black coffee and brown toast with olive oil. Or perhaps it is more that this ritual, most often observed in Cafe ‘Ino in the West Village, serves something far more significant than satisfying a basic need. After all, man does not live on bread alone.