Jean Smith is a painter, a novelist and the singer in the underground rock band Mecca Normal. Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1959.
ARTFORUM Magazine, Best of 2011 by Tobi Vail
1. Mecca Normal, Malachi Seven Inch (K Records)
Vancouver’s punk-protest duo have been changing the world with art and music since 1984. “Malachi” the A side of their latest single tells the story of Malachi Ritscher, a Chicago man who in 2006 immolated himself on the freeway during morning rush hour to protest the war in Iraq. By recording this song and performing it to audiences across the globe, Mecca Normal participates in the longstanding folk tradition of spreading political dissent through music. Photo of Mecca Normal by Jack DeGuiseppi
Jean grew up in North Vancouver in a house designed by architect Fred Hollingsworth, whose work is included in a recent book by photographer Selwyn Pullan (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012).
Growing up with artists for parents contributed to Jean’s interest in how and why various personality types interact. Her mother’s right-side-of-the-tracks background, tempered by the great depression, prevailed in terms of table manners and etiquette, but her father’s more colourful upbringing provided many stories about poverty, injustice and the meteoric rise of a true East End underdog who had lived all over hell’s half acre before his family of three settled in a rented apartment above a drug store where Commercial Drive meets Commercial Street in Vancouver. His father – known to all as Mac – sold knick-knacks and punch-cards out of the back of his pick-up truck on family excursions around the Pacific Northwest and beyond.
Having spent his elementary school years everywhere from Butte, Montana to Crater Lake, Oregon pledging allegiance to the flag in classrooms where he was perpetually unable to find his way academically, Jean’s father didn’t even know he wasn’t an American citizen until Mac’s photo appeared on the front page of a newspaper being arrested by the FBI as an illegal alien selling pinball machines to corner stores in Agate Beach, Oregon (or so the story goes).
Not knowing what else to do with a student who was at sea with the curriculum, teachers opted to send John to the art room where he poured over American Artist Magazine, until one day he read about a profession called commercial artist and he knew this was for him.
In her early teens, Jean began an ongoing series of self-portraits that have since been exhibited at three Ladyfest art shows (Olympia, WA in 2000, Los Angeles in 2003 and Seattle in 2004) and included in “How Art and Music Can Change the World” a classroom and art gallery event that Jean has been presenting (mainly on tour in the USA) since 2002.
Intending to follow in her father’s footsteps and become a commercial artist, Jean attended the Vancouver School of Art (now Emily Carr University of Art & Design), but left before completing her studies to work as a graphic artist in the production departments of the North Shore News, the Vancouver Courier and the WestEnder – where she met guitar player David Lester in 1981. Lester, who had been the art director at Vancouver’s Georgia Straight, introduced Jean to feminism and punk rock, encouraging her to funnel self-expression into song lyrics – which she did. The resulting guitar and voice duo of Mecca Normal has received critical acclaim since its first album release in 1986 on Smarten UP! Records, the label Jean named as an extension of her early 80s fanzine – a photocopied compendium of poems, book and record reviews, and political commentary that the Globe and Mail called “as schoolmarmish as its name” (much to Jean’s delight, having been a member of the Future Teacher’s Club in elementary school).
Nearly thirty years later, Smith and Lester maintain the creative partnership they forged in the early 1980s. The 14th Mecca Normal album was recorded in November, 2012. Its release (on a US label) will be supported by tours, art exhibits, lectures and a comprehensive promotional campaign featuring the music, the art and the novels.
Video of Jean Smith’s LitQuake presentation.
Images from the PowerPoint:
“Raven Coal Mine” – Dissolving traditional landscape by interjecting an abstraction that refers to the environmental devastation of a coal mine in one of her novels, Smith makes the work about color, composition and a cultural activism that intends to protect an environmentally sensitive region on British Columbia’s west coast.
Contact Jean Smith