Artistic Indendence and Social Media: Interview with DIY Multimedia Icon Jean Smith
In his controversial book How Soon Is Now Daniel Pinchbeck suggests viewing Facebook as a utility. This is the second in a series of interviews (read the first interview here) with cutting edge writers, artists and musicians working through Facebook to reach audiences that often don’t expect to find them there.
In the spring of 2016, multimedia artist Jean Smith – best known as the singer in the iconic underground rock band Mecca Normal – quit her part time job in the garden department of a Vancouver Home Depot to sell her paintings online. Over the next 22 months, the quality of her work, her history as a cultural activist, and her experience in D.I.Y. promotion contributed to her selling 300 of her intentionally under-priced 11 x 14″ portrait paintings directly from her Facebook page. In discussing her success, Jean is the first to say she’s lucky she found a sweet spot that allows first-time art buyers and Mecca Normal fans to own her original work.
Jean’s paintings have also been purchased by art instructors from the Art Institute of Chicago, a university art museum curator, and by art critics for both Artforurm Magazine and the Winnipeg Free Press. Connecting with buyers looks simple enough. Jean completes a painting, takes a photo of it, and posts it on Facebook. Some have sold within an hour.
If you know the Jean Smith story you’ll enjoy hearing it told again. If not, you’re about to learn a lot about the history of the underground. Vancouver, Canada, 1984: Jean Smith and David Lester started a band – an aggressively feminist guitar and voice duo – called Mecca Normal. Jean had a zine called Smarten Up! which she turned into a record label to release their first LP after only a handful of local shows. First gig? Opening for hardcore punk legends D.O.A. In 1986 and 87, with the loan of D.O.A.’s old school bus, Mecca Normal formed The Black Wedge to tour with other minimalist musicians and poets as an international anti-authoritarian event with an angry political message.
The Black Wedge toured down the west coast and crossed an American heartland that was rocking out to the heavy bubblegum of hair metal. But they attracted compatriots like Bob Dylan’s mentor David Whitaker and San Francisco writer Peter Plate. They got involved with K Records, a new label in Olympia, WA, which grew into one of the great indie labels of the 90s. David designed iconic punk rock album covers. Jean began publishing her writing in chapbooks and began to write music-related articles for various publications including the Village Voice and Your Flesh.
From the first, Mecca Normal received extreme reactions from reviewers. Comparisons to Woody Guthrie, descriptions of Mecca Normal recordings as “riveting” and “radical” were balanced by critics who called them the worst thing they ever heard, one comparing their music to an insect. But one of the beauties of Mecca Normal from the start is that Jean and David have never been in it for the money, or glory. “When we get negative reviews, all it really serves to do is make me more determined to do more of whatever bugs people,” Jean told the Montreal Mirror in 1993.
What do I mean exactly by multimedia artists you may ask? Jean has designed all of Mecca Normal’s 20-plus record covers. By 1990 she was also experimenting with film. Her video for the Mecca Normal song “20 Years/No Escape” won the experimental video award at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona. That year Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill fanzine featured an interview with Jean headlined: “Mecca Normal: it makes me wanna cry, I am so glad they exist.” In 1990 Mecca Normal played CBGB’s, and shows with Fugazi and Mudhoney.
On a postcard Kathleen Hanna sent to David Lester in 1991 she wrote: “The stuff you recorded in Jan. has changed the quality of my life.” Kathleen later told Network Toronto: “I wouldn’t be in a band if I hadn’t heard of Jean.” Fellow Bikini Kill founder Tobi Vail wrote in her zine Jigsaw: “To me, Mecca Normal is one of the only true punk bands around, in that way they are totally subversive. Maybe that is why so many of today’s young white males and their friends enjoy telling me how much they suck. I can’t think of anyone else who writes more powerful songs about what it feels like to be a woman in a world of violence against women.” The Village Voice agreed: “I don’t know of any other rock ‘n’ roll so closely attuned to the realities of women’s rage.”
In ’91 Mecca Normal played at the six day long International Pop Underground Convention, the musical event that introduced the world to Olympia’s D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) methodology and riot grrrl. Jean also performed solo during the women only “Revolution Girl Style Now” opening night show singing a Mecca Normal song and playing guitar with her feet. In their coverage of the event Rolling Stone raved: “At the North Shore Surf Club, guitarist David Lester erected a complex one-man wall of sound, while singer-poet Jean Smith dramatically demonstrated her superb range and control, finishing off with a feedback dance (literally) on guitar.” On the International Pop Underground Convention live album, Bratmobile can be heard introducing their set by saying Mecca Normal is “my punk rock dream come true.”
Kill Rock Stars Records launched with a compilation that year and Mecca Normal was one of the artists included. Nirvana sent out newsletters to their fan club members claiming that Kurt would be doing a duet with Jean: “Islands in the Stream”. By 1992 USA Today, Seventeen Magazine and the L.A. Times interviewed Jean about riot grrrl and women in rock. Mecca Normal’s third album, Dovetail, hit #5 on the Canadian national charts.
In 1993 David Lester started his small press Get To The Point, to publish Jean Smith’s first novel “I Can Hear Me Fine”. Combining forces, Jean later became editor of Smarten Up! & Get To The Point. They’ve published chapbooks of poetry, political writing and artwork by community activists. One book won a major award, and another was selected as one of the top five poetry chapbooks in Canada. Jean is a two-time recipient of Canada Council for the Arts awards as an author of creative fiction, who is currently waiting patiently for her literary agent to find her a publisher. Writing novels (literary fiction) took the majority of Jean’s time between 2000 and 2015, resulting in four complete manuscripts yet to see the light of day.
“Mecca Normal has inspired a large movement of feminists in their teens and early 20s who call themselves Riot Grrrls,” wrote The New York Times. “Female punk rock fans become united by the feminist messages shouted by bands such as Mecca Normal,” added USA Today.
Sonic Youth asked Mecca Normal to play a show with them in Seattle. Alternative Press did a two-page spread on Mecca Normal. Rolling Stone featured them in the Guide to the Coolest Music and Artists Making It, alongside Liz Phair and Radiohead. Jean flew to Boston to tape ABC’s Night Talk with Jane Whitney for a show about Women In Rock. Maury Povich and Esquire Magazine wanted to talk to Jean. The list of labels that have released Mecca Normal’s music is the cream of 90s indie labels: K, Kill Rock Stars, Sub Pop, Matador.
But then the bottom dropped out of the Seattle music biz specifically, and not long after, out of the music biz generally. The national level of attention disappeared. The all ages clubs and other progressive music networks so many indie bands depended on closed down all across the United States.
When the indie touring circuit disappeared Mecca Normal innovated a new way to tour. Their “How Art & Music Can Change the World” lecture and performance event in the early 2000s included high school and university classrooms, art galleries and bookstores as venues. In 2009, Mecca Normal’s 25th anniversary tour – 25 shows in 25 days – was split between conventional rock venues and classrooms.
Jean’s writing for Smashpipe in 2013 about her experiences with online dating are simultaneously hilarious and horrifying, achieving a level of human angst that brings to mind Beckett’s take on the human condition. In 2014 for Democracy Now! Amy Goodman interviewed Jean and David about the inclusion of their art in a Whitney Biennial exhibit about war protester Malachi Ritscher. Mecca Normal opened for The Julie Ruin (a band that includes two members of Bikini Kill) at three shows on the west coast in 2016. In September of this year, The Jealous Curator featured five of Jean’s paintings on her much-loved contemporary art website.
From MySpace through YouTube to Facebook Jean and David have always been on the cutting edge of new media delivering their self evident message that “Anti-authoritarianism is announced in D.I.Y. productivity.”
The success of her paintings has allowed her to quit her job and brought her praise from the art community. The paintings themselves are social media, connecting and reconnecting Jean with friends old and new. As Jean shares her latest paintings on Facebook, she allows her fans to follow the rapid evolution of her work. Songwriter, activist, novelist, filmmaker, painter, event organizer, editor, musician, frontwoman, and constant source of inspiration, Jean Smith is a trailblazer.
Tamra Lucid: Where do you look for inspiration for your $100 USD painting series?
Jean Smith: Once I realized that my paintings didn’t have to be of anyone in particular, I looked for strong faces photographed in light that defined specific features from perspectives I prefer to paint. Photos on the internet and screen-grabs if I see something I’m watching online. I’ve painted several transgender models, glamorous film stars from the 50s, but once I started painting universal emotions rather than features, I felt less compelled to replicate features. Sometimes my Facebook friends ask if it’s so-and-so and I reply, then delete the comment so everyone can see it how they choose to. It’s never very much about pre-existing personalities. Let’s say I paint Bridget Bardot – which I have – but my objective has more to do with emotions that aren’t essentially expressed on her face in the photo. My paintings hold multiple tensions and micro-energies that transcend the split second of the shutter opening and closing. There’s added emotional history involved because of who I am and how she looks. To me, these women don’t look markedly different when painted by a feminist, but maybe viewers are seeing things that are basically just normal to me. As with our band – a feminist rock duo of electric guitar and voice. Mecca Normal seems totally normal to me, but a lot of other people think we’re really weird. To me, it’s exactly the right form of expression.
How did the series begin?
Actually, I began painting self-portraits when I was 13, in the 1970s. Both my parents are painters, and my dad was also an ad agency art director in the 60s and 70s working with models on print media ad campaigns for Nabob coffee etc. He flew from Vancouver to NYC to use top photographers and models. One of the photographers was John Rawlings, who shot over 200 Vogue and Glamour covers. My dad ventured from the limited resources of Vancouver to NYC of his own volition, found Rawlings through some strange set of circumstances and began hiring him to work on his ad agency accounts. He also bought me incredible clothes – or at least one dress in particular that I recall. It was made out of beautiful linen with a very dark blue skirt that you never would have seen on a dress here where girls’ clothes were all pink and frilly, it seemed. He also heard a lot of jazz at clubs like the Hickory House, and he brought home jazz records including Marian McPartland – which I think I took note of. A woman playing jazz piano as the leader of a trio, being taken seriously. He’s also a huge fan of my mother’s paintings. They’re both great painters, but I think it was good for me to hear him enthuse about her work. I had a unique vantage point behind the scenes of both painting and advertising content.
My painting was a very private thing at that point, as a teenager. I had acne that lasted into my 30s, so I had a somewhat tortured relationship with my looks, but coming from an artistic setting, I knew from experience that looks weren’t everything. I was funny, creative and smart. I was a ski instructor for a while, but I also had the over-riding acne that kind of tainted everything. Most teens and young women have issues with their looks. I can’t recall my line of thinking that compelled me to set up a mirror and paint my face, except to say that in those hours, I wasn’t looking at problems, I was doing something else. Calculating relationships between features, studying shadow and contour, mixing color. I wasn’t sitting there thinking about how acne might limit my adventures in romance or whatever.
I started drinking at 13 and had various male friends and boyfriends, but even at the time, those years seemed superficial and unnecessarily angsty. I was happiest alone in my room listening to Led Zeppelin and CCR, sewing or painting. And reading. I was always reading novels. Adult fiction – James Baldwin, Bernard Malamud, Salinger, and “Daddy Was a Number Runner” by Louise Meriwether. It depicts a poor black family in Harlem during the Great Depression. I wasn’t aware of such a thing as young adult fiction at that time.
Anyway, I painted self-portraits in a way that was not part of historical feminine beauty or glossy advertising. I’d been exposed to lots of painters and I took to the fauves, the expressionists and the impressionists early on, but we also had subscriptions to Communication Arts that featured the best adverting imagery. Most of this stimulation was processed with acceptance. We had a book of photos of Picasso being a bit of an ass in his studio. That was kind of disturbing. I hoped my father wasn’t taking cues from him.
Over the years, I veered off into still-life and landscape painting, while intending to do one self-portrait a year. In 2000, I was invited to show the self-portraits at the original Ladyfest in Olympia, after which a group of laser prints of the paintings went on to two other Ladyfests. Around that time, David and I were exhibiting our art at Mecca Normal shows. I quit drinking that year and I found having extra things to do at a club was very helpful. Rather than sitting around drinking beer between sound check and the show, we put up an entire art show – and took it down again at the end of the night. This wasn’t something I figured out; it happened without me consciously thinking it up. It happened when I put my solo performance together too. Also in 2000, godspeed you black emperor! asked me to open their west coast shows after they heard my solo album. I played everything on the album (sax, drum, guitar, piano) so I made a backing CD and switched between guitar and sax on stage. There was no room for alcohol in this orchestration. This was during a long period of time in which I was working through a bunch of personal stuff. I’d always known that if I quit drinking I’d have to figure out why I was drinking in order to stay sober. So I was working on all that. Childhood, family, relationships. I was writing a lot about all this, but I was also painting. I did a series called “Pint Glass” on cream velvet fabric. Very loose and watercolor-y. The pint glass had been stolen at an airport and given to me on tour, but in the series of paintings it was being used as a vase. There was an incident at an exhibit I curated here in Vancouver when a well-known political artist came to see how her work had been hung for the show and she was very angry that her work was beside my supposedly meaningless paintings of flowers. To be fair, she didn’t know they were my paintings, but it was educational. Her work was extremely literal. I think it had actual text worked into it saying what it was about. To me, my work was political because it was a re-purposing of a beer drinking vessel, but all that was lost on her.
When the current $100 series began I was in the throes of finding a suitable part time job that allowed me enough time to write. I’m usually working on a novel and I’m very disciplined about getting up super early and writing, but part time jobs I’d been taking weren’t a good fit. I worked at Whole Foods as a cashier for a couple of months at Christmas and managed to bugger up my wrists which is not good when typing is your thing, so I left there and got in at a Home Depot garden center which was more or less OK until they started scheduling me for 5 days a week at 5:00 a.m. to water thousands of plants with a watering can. I told them I couldn’t work those hours. They nodded and smiled, and scheduled me the same way. The 20 hours I needed to pay my bills was over 5 days, greatly reducing my morning writing time because it was almost an hour’s walk to the Home Depot.
I’d started the painting series by casually posting on Facebook that I’d do one $100 painting a day to make a living rather than do the Home Depot job. I was thinking landscapes because that’s what I’ve done a lot of, but I posted a painting I’d done of David’s wife Wendy that I was going to give him for Christmas, but it didn’t look enough like her, so I hung onto it. Well, it sold within a matter of minutes and someone else wanted to give me money up front for the next one! So, that’s how it began. I had no idea that paintings of faces that weren’t really specific people would sell. It was a total revelation and from there I was amazed at how many people liked my really loose and abstract work. I figured I’d have to aim for realism, but it was really exciting to see comments from people I had no idea were interested in art suddenly going wild for less figurative work.
How have Facebook and other social media helped you become an independent painter?
Being a singer who has toured quite a lot – mostly in the 90s – I know how much audience reaction can elevate performances. I thrive in that situation. Being a novelist is extremely solitary work, but I like that sort of voluntary exile as well. I frequently posted excerpts of what I was writing, and even a small amount of interaction seemed to benefit the writing. It’s a form of accountability that I work with. Unlike posting music or writing, posting paintings gets an immediate reaction. As soon as I realized people really liked my work – and they’d buy it – I began establishing patterns for how and when I posted. I decided on the size and price and I create other content: videos, informative posts on my painting blog, studio visits, mobile exhibitions. All of this replicates how I promote albums, tours and books.
I’ve only really sent out one press release and that resulted in a nearly overwhelming response. I’ve been a long time follower of The Jealous Curator and I know she likes very stylized work. I wasn’t at all sure she’d like my paintings. I sent her the email and got an auto-response back saying she got 50 promo letters a day. Then, almost immediately, she wrote saying, “GAH! I love them, Jean! Post going up tomorrow!”
The next month was bonkers. I basically just sat here selling paintings, updating my online albums, taking photos out of the currently available files, and then there was the packaging and shipping. I think I sold about 45 paintings in the month following the feature. One thing I did that was sort of sneaky, was when she posted the feature on her Facebook page and hundreds of people “Liked” it, I went through and friend-requested every one of those people and most of them accepted, and I’m still getting sales two months later.
Before the feature I was selling half of what I painted – which kind of bugged me. Since the feature I’m selling three fifths. In a way, I have to be somewhat careful about doing too much promotion. I need time to paint!
Has your interaction with people through social media influenced your work?
As a singer in a band that has so far spent over 30 years creating music that doesn’t intend to be popular, I’d say I have a good handle on not caving in to the sentiments people express, and people rarely do, because these are people I’m connected to, it isn’t the general public, although I encourage anyone to add me on Facebook to see paintings as they’re created. I’d say most of my FB friends know who I am in terms of culture and some of the new ones regard me as a painter and they see I’m integrating my art practice and exhibiting by posting new paintings almost everyday. I paint, photograph and post. I do think a lot about viewers and what they say. The enthusiasm is very motivating, but I usually don’t react by repeating images. At one point last year I painted a baboon screaming, and people loved it! It got a high number of likes and it felt like a sensation. What I didn’t do was go and paint another baboon. I painted precisely zero more baboons. To me, that’s a political act. It’s downright anti-capitalist.
When a really special painting happens – and they do, fairly regularly – I want to allow it to be a special thing and I’m careful not to muck up the continuity of work or start thinking I should move beyond Facebook. I know people might be waiting for another baboon, but they don’t comment. I feel like I have a relationship with viewers. They encourage me and I feel seen and appreciated. We’re in close proximity and there’s a kind of reciprocity that we’ve built. The deal is that I keep making good paintings available for $100 and they keep telling me they like them – and they buy them regularly enough that I can make a living. It’s this strangely transparent process that’s part of the project. The unspoken part of the project is that the paintings may not be a bad investment.
It’s interesting too that the way I’ve structured the business side of painting is very much like what we did with Mecca Normal’s first record in 1986. We didn’t go looking for a record label because we wanted to do that part of it ourselves. Weirdly, Vancouver (which is on unceded Coast Salish territory) had a record pressing plant. When we went in to watch them do the initial set-up we were given the option of adding what was called inner groove writing. We had them write in “we live on Indian land” on one side and placed an order for 500 LPs which we somehow crammed in my 1973 Toyota Corolla when they were ready. It was all a total thrill and the beginning of long friendships and social change, and I wouldn’t trade it for a traditional career in the music industry.
Do you take commissions?
People ask me to do commissions and, in theory, I’d like to, but I really don’t enjoy doing them – especially if I’ve never laid eyes on the person in real life. I’ve had some success at painting likenesses, but it isn’t what I want to do, yet I have learned more about what I want to do from those occasions. When I’m painting a specific person I get bogged down in thinking about their chin or how they feel about their upper lip or whatever it is. I want to please them, but I also want to do a good painting. The best commissions have been the ones when people have said it doesn’t matter if it looks like them! Otherwise, it’s all quite taxing because I’ll be getting good results, but then I’ll have to change it to make it look more like someone and that’s just not what I want to be doing. Also, I don’t want to be charging some other price – or I get people assuming I do likenesses for $100, which, when you think about it, is a lot more work. So being accessible on the internet opens me up to a plethora of notions that could derail me, but my background and experience helps me stay focused. Having had more success than I ever imagined as a singer who sings however I want is a good template to build a painting empire from.
Do you still find time to write? If so, what are you working on these days?
I’m working on a YA novel about a group of teens who start a band and tour to Chicago to record with a famous producer, but I have to admit that since The Jealous Curator feature, painting sales have increased and I haven’t been writing for the past couple of months, which is really weird for me. My literary agent is keen to get it, so I need to figure out where I left the story. Originally, selling paintings was supposed to give me time to write without having to go to a job, but painting took over.
I also write and curate a weekly column for Magnet Magazine online that includes an illustration by David Lester, a free song download, and what started out as a caption written by me, but has taken off into other areas like lyrics, short stories and band history. We’re currently at Volume 454 with no intention of stopping.
What’s going on musically?
Mecca Normal is writing new songs to record as an album. We wanted to have a few new songs when we opened for The Julie Ruin in 2016 – you know, just to make that as uncomfortable an experience as possible (joking). So they were written with those shows in mind. There’s one about feminism called “I Am Here” that people reacted well to. Plus, we still have “Anguish/Misogyny” that we wrote when we last toured in 2014. I’m moving away from the very dense lyrics that I’ve taken directly out of novels that I’d hoped would have been published around the same time as the albums. Those are like singing short stories, which I really liked, but now I want to be freer and replace the words with energy. We also have a live album from 1996 coming out in 2018 as part of a series related to an iconic radio program called Brave New Waves that aired coast to coast on CBC, Canada’s national network. Weirdly, I feel like we’re still contenders. I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be taken seriously. I feel better about almost everything than at any other point in my life. I’m super happy to be working on Mecca Normal with David, but it’s weird that now, because we’re both working on other things, everything takes longer to finish, but those other projects – like my novels and painting and David’s current project: a graphic novel about Emma Goldman – are also part of our group projects and in that we expand our focus, work independently and then we bring these experiences back to song writing.
Do you find that on social media people respond differently to your paintings, writing and music? Or do they all work together?
By the time David published my first novel in 1993, Mecca Normal had played hundreds of shows. It was a strange revelation when, after performing, we’d fling open the merch case and people gravitated to the book. Where before we’d only seen people standing around looking at our records and t-shirts, now there were people standing around looking at books, too. I sometimes go back to that image in my mind as a reminder that we don’t really know what will fly.
Initially, I used social media (primarily MySpace) as a blog for my writing. I posted excerpts from novels and wrote about whatever projects David and I were undertaking – tours, books, albums. Mostly I developed a relationship between that voice and a small audience. I kept hearing about the migration to Facebook, but I didn’t like the nature of the newsfeed. Its sense of flowing into the past didn’t seem to work for blog-style writing rooted in an url, but that’s how I used it. As a blog. I wrote about what was going on at various part time jobs and with my elderly parents and people connected with those universal themes. But I could also feel other people thinking: “Get a blog, lady!” But that’s social media. It’s mostly about inventing and assuming what we think other people are thinking, which is something I spent a lot of time working on about 15 years ago – not assuming and not taking things personally.
Facebook is great for people like David and I who toured quite a lot and made friends in other places over the years. It’s something of a miracle that they are accessible in this way. They make up a certain percentage of my ‘friends’ but I’d say most of my ‘friends’ are people who know me, but I don’t know them. I was a regular content provider long before I started the $100 painting project, but now people are seeking me out because they’re hearing about it in places I can’t reach either because I’m algorithmically limited or they’ve seen my paintings featured elsewhere. I’ve figured out a bit of coding, but I have my doubts I’m able to connect through any SEO cleverness. I have been testing out long-tail keywords lately, using “contemporary portrait paintings” in my WordPress posts, but I haven’t been able to deduce its impact. Nor do I have any clue what’s ahead. For almost the entire 22 months, I’ve been fearfully anticipating that the whole thing will grind to a halt and I’ll be back to looking for another part time retail job, which, at 58 with rock ‘n roll sized gaps in my resume, may be difficult to secure.
Every now and then I feel like there are a whole bunch of people waiting for one of the “really good ones” which kind of bugs me. Sometimes when the bar gets set too high, there’s a lull in sales while people wait. I monitor all of these occurrences and think a lot about how to proceed. I recently got a comment from a woman who seemed to be complaining that selling paintings was effortless for me. Believe me, it’s a roller coaster ride. Being self-employed as an artist and starting a small business aren’t easy. Then I get people making suggestions about things I could do with the paintings – pillows, postcards, shows – but the thing is, what I’m doing is working. I’m not going to take time away from something that’s working to go into the postcard business. As a one person operation, I am very careful with my time and I protect my creativity.
Seeing as how you’re an artist whose work has from the first fearlessly expressed the rage of women, what’s your take on #MeToo?
It made me realize that my singing and talking about sexual harassment and sexual assault for 30 years is a very unusual role to have created. I think it’s safe to say that most women haven’t participated in the same way I have, as part of a public reckoning that intends to create a sense of scope of misogyny. I can’t imagine many women are surprised at its pervasive reach into our lives. For me personally, it feels like a weird milestone. I’ve been an activist in this way for so long that it seems sort of sad that we’re only at this stage of evolution. It doesn’t seem like too much has improved in this regard and yet, all that can be mustered is a #MeToo on Facebook or Twitter. I don’t know. I guess that reflects my frustration at not having seen more progress. I posted a little story and a video of the song “Orange Sunset” as my #MeToo, as an example of what I’ve been singing about since the early 80s. Maybe my history will be useful in a way that I can’t yet see.
You’ve said the $100 price of your paintings, despite advice from experts that you should charge much more, is important to you because it makes your art accessible to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it. Do you sometimes contemplate a more expensive series?
There are quite a few factors to consider – not all of them are altruistic, but I do like it that the price gives first-time art buyers and regular job-holders a chance to buy original paintings. The price would be part of an artist statement, but I want to sidestep art world constructs and deal directly with people. I blurted out the figure – $100 USD – in a rash statement when I was working in retail. “I’d rather do a painting every day and post it for sale for $100.” So, that became the project. There was immediate interest and sales. I have done a few larger paintings – one is in a gallery of art by musicians along with Bob Dylan, Bowie, Grace Slick, Jimi Hendrix and bunch of others. My prices for the larger work isn’t in step with the $100 series, but they aren’t gallery prices either. For now, sales on Facebook are strong enough. I can pay my bills. I’m making a living as a single artist without any other income. That’s a total thrill!
As a fortunate Canadian but also as someone who has fearlessly spoken out about politics and injustice in America what’s your take on how Trump happened and what comes next?
One of the more radical statements I’ve read recently is that the world’s wealthy are waging war on the poor. I tend to look to Noam Chomsky for big picture, bold analysis. The film “Requiem for the American Dream” is very good for that. In fact not just big picture, but returning to the basic foundation of society, such as: concentration of wealth yields concentration of power. I suppose what comes next ideally is a public re-assessment and letting go of highly-regarded institutionalized tenets that intend to protect the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Widespread concern should follow the understanding that the fundamental task of government is “to protect the minority of the opulent from the majority” as James Madison (one of the framers of the Constitution) stated.
As a feminist and cultural activist, how did you decide to paint women’s faces?
To some degree, I want my history as a feminist who has created very direct political work for 30 years, to be a trusted component in this project. When I’m painting a face, I feel like I’m representing a unique, yet non-specific individual based on the photo I’m using as a subject. I have a sense of there being too much power on my side. I don’t want to betray the individual that I’m creating by making them too sexy or too sad or too predictable. I want to give them the opportunity to not smile, to not ‘say cheese’ at the camera. I’m very aware that I’m painting from photos that were taken for specific purposes – a lot of them are publicity shots or for advertising. It feels like I’m giving misrepresented personalities the opportunity to express a depth of emotion – which is sometimes anger – or maybe it’s the subtle nuances I choose to include; that they are being painted specifically by me. I’m using the strength of my history as a feminist to allow these faces to take back their image and have it made accessible again through me and I take that responsibility seriously. It’s an exercise in trust. Even where there is no accountability to that person. I’m not the male photographer or art director trying to get the shot the client will use to sell merchandise. I come along later and perform a sort of imbuing of emotion that might have been there, but wouldn’t serve the purpose of a photo shoot.
Painting these faces is informed by the years I’ve spent writing novels. When I say I’m self-taught as a writer I don’t mean I went out and found material to learn from, I mean that I started and sorted out methods on my own. Building characters that function consistently to represent a concept in the story is a very grand and tricky undertaking. This sense of responsibility carries over into the paintings I’m doing now. Sometimes I read people saying that I create these faces with just a few strokes of the brush and – voilà! But that isn’t how it happens at all. There are thousands of micro-nuances that occur around the eyes and the mouths especially, that I keep painting over, adjusting to fit with an overall feeling – my feeling and the feeling on the subject’s face. If there’s one great skill in painting, it’s knowing when to stop. I’m pretty good about stopping, but until it’s all there, I keep painting.
I think my years working at Curves was very helpful to this project as well. I was a fitness technician at Curves – a weight loss gym for older women – but one of my main functions was to go around the circuit with women and basically listen to them or tell them stories. It was extremely social and physical – and there were no men around. Being with women in this environment over maybe five years was fascinating. Being part of a community that encourages an openness about appearance and physical activity was very positive. I spent thousands of hours standing across from women, talking with them as they worked out, while they were not, in those moments, trying to configure themselves to be glamorous, beautiful, or otherwise counter to how they felt
One of the most surprising and encouraging things that has happened is the enthusiasm for more abstract paintings, the less figurative ones. Again, as with non-specific faces in general, I was amazed to see people I had no idea were interested in art gravitating to very powerful paintings. Personally, I like having my assumptions dashed against the rocks in favour of a better vantage point.
How does your interest in politics influence your painting?
I often feel like I should be doing more overtly political art like my “Standing Rock Water Protectors” series, that painting faces – women’s faces – isn’t enough. Yet, this concern reflects how a lot of people feel right now, historically. What can I do? What can any of us do to set things on a better course? Maybe it hasn’t been necessary to describe the better course for a long time. Better than what? Better than 1% self-interest. How about the greatest good to the greatest number of people? A utilitarian premise that doesn’t take us too far, but I think that’s what people have in mind as opposed to being fine with the wealthy doing whatever they want to make money at the expense of everyone else.
When I start to question my motivation for not making overtly political art, I accept that fear is involved. Would people buy political art? Do I paint protestors or faces? I go back to the amount of very direct political content I have created. Must I always sing political songs? Paint political art? Write political novels?
I did two paintings that depict a woman being carried away at a demo. I admit: when the second one didn’t sell, I stopped. If it had sold, I would have painted more of them. I make a distinction between making multiple paintings of political subjects and replicating primarily aesthetic work. It’s very different. If I had a strong sense of political work selling, I’d paint more of it. Painting faces is a way for me to support myself and protect myself from retail-related damage (wrists, back, etc.) so that I can continue to make more overtly political work in the future. There! I’ve justified it! Yet, if painting women from photos whose primary intention was to exploit women in the name of capitalism, if painting those faces with a completely different intention, to populate the world with women’s emotions that they themselves (allegedly) felt – anger included – this is political. It’s also utterly idiosyncratic and it requires some thought. It’s also the work of a cultural activist who has been creating work across a handful of disciplines without ever making it big, but yet, keeps going rather than giving up or selling out.
I sometimes feel that the prettier faces sell fastest, that there’s a demand for youth and beauty, that I don’t want to play into. I’m not searching for something that will sell well and then continue to paint a bunch of those. That isn’t what I’m doing. Even though I get immediate feedback in terms of ‘likes’ and sales on Facebook, I return to paint whatever I want. Most recently, I’ve been placing more importance on areas other than the face like the hair, neck and shoulders – where I’m doing more abstract work. It’s a way of broadening the work beyond the face.
I think more money-driven artists might go towards what sells, but that’s too much like capitalism – as is raising the price for no particular reason other than it’s the conventional thing to do when something becomes popular. All the years of making music that isn’t about fame and fortune fortifies this approach. I know first hand what else can be accomplished by making something that isn’t essentially profit-driven. Friendship, community, measurable social change. Don’t get me wrong – I want to have money to reduce worry and increase security, but it isn’t what propels this project. Yet again, if the paintings weren’t selling, I’d have to get a job in retail. Grappling with the balance between creativity and commerce is nothing new to me. It’s part of what I’d include in an artist statement, but I think that’s something that will come later.
I view the posting of paintings on Facebook as sequential art. I’m not sure if anyone else sees it that way. When I use the same subject, but change the features from blonde to brunette etc., there is usually a stylistic connection between those paintings. It can be a bit tricky to move on to a new subject. Tricky in how that transition appears on Facebook. After perhaps a week or more of a strong style, I want a sense of connection to the first new painting. It’s a bit like selecting where songs are positioned within an album. Maybe the average listener isn’t thinking about that, but it’s a step in making an album. I recently reached this point after painting from the same photo and someone (a former culture writer from Bitch Magazine) commented, asking me to outline each stage of my artistic choices in the new painting. To me, this is fantastically stimulating! To have the opportunity to engage with an interested viewer, one who has been watching the procession of paintings posted for months, want to know something specific. I feel like I’m in a similar environment to Paris around 1907, in the Montmartre studios of Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, when the poets came around and gave voice to the paintings and the painters. All men, we notice – except for the models.
I’m extremely comfortable living online. It isn’t a matter of simply posting paintings; it’s creating a world in which the paintings fit historically and within the immediacy of connections that the internet provides.