In mid–April I quit my part–time job at a Home Depot garden center because the series of $100 portraits I’d started painting a couple of months prior were selling pretty well from my personal FaceBook page. I’d had it with crappy part time jobs and the way they wreck my creative time. I posted a statement on FaceBook about doing five $100 paintings a day to make a living. I figured I’d do landscapes – something easy – but, along with my rash and somewhat desperate statement, I posted a portrait of a woman wearing a big black hat and to my total amazement, a university painting instructor bought it within the first few hours, and then, by the end of that same day, an interior design instructor in Seattle wanted to pay me up front for the next one! I sold about twenty paintings in those first two months, but I had no idea if it would continue, escalate or dry up completely.
“The Hat” (11 x 14″ acrylic on watercolour paper) January, 2016
I had no idea that there was a market for portraits of people that were just random faces, really. I mean, they are paintings of actual people, but that isn’t the point. No one asks who they are. I take liberties with features because it’s about emotions conveyed – and the paint itself – than representing a specific person. It’s sort of the opposite of a selfie, which is all about a specific person and what they look like in various situations. None the less, I notice people sometimes do buy ones that look like them in some way and that’s been really interesting.
Since the end of January, I’ve done about a hundred–and–sixty paintings, seventy of which have sold. I had a few key people on FaceBook show interest in the beginning and that was super helpful. I don’t actually know Johanna Fateman –– formerly of the band Le Tigre and currently an art critic for Artforum Magazine – but she bought two, including one of the wilder ones (“The Hat #31”). She shared my posts, calling the portraits “mysterious”, and that landed a few sales.
In the beginning, I didn’t know how people would feel about less representational work, work that veered confidently towards abstraction. So Johanna’s interest in one of the wilder ones was crucial; it really set the tone. And overall, I’ve been really impressed with the response to what I’ll continue to call the wilder ones. People I didn’t know had any interest in art whatsoever were enthusing over really loose paintings. I was shocked! Attention – positive and negative –– does modify how I proceed, but with Mecca Normal I have a long history of being bold and inventive.
I started painting self–portraits when I was thirteen. The first time I exhibited them was at Ladyfest in Olympia in 2000 when I made laser copies of a dozen or so of the teenage ones and then, after that, those were included in various art exhibitions related to Mecca Normal. I’ve always tried to do at least one self-portrait a year since and I was pretty good about that up until fairly recently.
Both my parents were professional painters. My mother, who is now ninety-six, is an art school graduate and my father was an ad agency art director during the Mad Men era. So, I had a somewhat rarefied upbringing in terms of rampant creativity and emotional volatility.
Painting by my mother, circa “the 1990s”
Painting by my father, circa “the 1970s”
I went to art school for a while before taking a job in newspaper production back in the days of paper galleys cut with an X–acto knife. As a kid, I figured I’d be a painter, but I got sidetracked (in a good way) by Mecca Normal and writing. I’ve heard it said that women my age (fifty-seven) aren’t really “allowed” to enter The (official) Art World. I’ve also heard that doing more than one thing well isn’t really encouraged as a career strategy, maybe even especially for an older woman. It feels weird saying older, because I feel better than ever about everything in my life. I’m extremely happy to be single and living alone, alternating my creative focus between music, novels – and now these “mysterious” portraits.
I work from photographs – mostly professional models and screengrabs from films. I try to subtly impose emotional nuances into the paintings. It’s a sort of violation in a way, to wilfully misrepresent faces for my own purposes, but this happens all the time in advertising and in acting – and in life. Faking emotions. Hiding the face behind make–up. It’s all pretty weird. I get going, methodically running a brush around a person’s eye, nose and mouth, over and over, until it’s finished. That’s the trick of painting. Knowing when to stop.
I create characters in two distinct ways – with paint and with words. While the two methods inform each other in ways I hadn’t expected, the viewer and the reader have active roles in finalizing interpretations. In addition to an overall sense of androgyny within the series of paintings, there are other gender-related themes including identity and masks. One of the photographs I go back to is of a trans fashion model. Another subject I’ve painted at least a dozen times does sex work, but I didn’t know that when I started painting her. I liked the photo – composition and light are usually what attract me. I recently clued into the history of painters using prostitutes as models. I must have painted her half a dozen times before it struck me that I’m inadvertently part of that tradition – except that she doesn’t know I’m painting her and I’m not paying her for her time.
I’m finding that I rely on my lifelong inclination to not do things to please an audience. I’m not gonna paint pretty Asian ladies with gold eye shadow too many times just to make those sales. That’s not what I’m doing. I have to learn something within the process every time.
The turnaround time from the studio to potential buyers is super fast. It’s very social. I finish a painting, photograph it and post it on FaceBook. Sometimes a painting will start getting a lot of comments right away and sell in the first hour, which means I’ve found something people like, but, if I was to try and do another one like it, I’d be working from an inferior position. I can’t let reactions mess up what I’m doing.
I was totally thrilled when painter Molly Zuckerman–Hartung, who teaches painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, bought one in February. Her paintings were included in the 2014 Whitney Biennial, which is one of the most important exhibitions in the world. Molly has suggested I raise my price from $100 to be more in keeping with how artists actually price their work, but I really like it that people who don’t normally buy art are buying these because they are affordable. She sent a few buyers my way from her sphere and suddenly I had world class painters interested in my work – including an instructor from the Yale School of Art whose work has been exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art (in New York).
“Jean Smith is a f***ing genius. She is unsentimental, but her work always leaves me with my own bruised longing exposed.” – Molly Zuckerman-Hartung
Molly Neuman Hernández – formerly the drummer in Bratmobile and the Frumpies, now head of music at KickStarter – bought one of the anomalies. Every now and then I break out of the portrait series and do something else. Molly bought “The Gymnast” which has a more defined feminist angle than most of the portraits. The young woman on the beam is fully engaged in her work as onlookers evaluate many other things about her than how a young woman is typically judged on the street, for instance. In a way, with feminist themes in the portrait series being somewhat subtle – and yet to fully evolve – I was very happy that the narrative related to “The Gymnast” was nice and clear.
It sometimes concerns me that I’m painting women’s faces. I start wondering if I’m putting enough out there about what it means to be a woman, what it means to look like a woman. Sometimes, when I’ve been painting too long and it’s really hot, I get this strange feeling that the heads should have arms or wings and not be immobilized within the canvas, that the faces feel restrained and they should have ways to protect themselves, to push back or fly away. But really, I’m not gonna go there. I’m not gonna paint little arms on the sides of these faces.
I have a feeling the series will evolve. With other projects I’ve started (like Mecca Normal), I had no idea at all what would happen. I want to keep painting as I am and not change anything about how I work or how I sell them. Everything is going really well and, in way, it’s an exercise in not fucking it up. I don’t actually need more sales or more attention. Is it possible to maintain something that is working? Why do various constructs in art and interpersonal relationships fail? Usually because we did or didn’t change them.
Having a successful art practice is way more nerve–wracking than having one that is totally off the radar. Life changed in ways I didn’t essentially anticipate to accommodate this surprise success. I had to set other projects aside and, with the painting, when it doesn’t feel like it’s being built into something other than it already is, I start to feel like I’ve somehow stalled. Stalled some place within a perfect storm of creative output, expenses and sales all falling into place. The project has to do with why I’m painting as much as what the paintings look like – which is a damn good analogy for what it is to be a woman. There’s more going on behind the scenes than what is conveyed by the face.