Category Archives: History

A brief history of Mecca Normal

A brief history of Mecca Normal in TV news clips and live footage to give background and context to Jeans Smith’s ongoing $100 painting series.

“I made this for Dan Seward’s Bunnybrains event during TBA: 16  at PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art) 511 Gallery in Portland, Oregon on September 15, 2016.” – Jean Smith

Part of Makeup on Empty Space, curated by Kristan Kennedy. Co-presented with PNCA’s 511 Gallery & Director of Center for Contemporary Art and Culture, Mack McFarland.

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An Unintentional Success Story

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.

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“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.

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The Hat #31

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.

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Self-portrait painted when I was 14, 1974 (11 x 17″ watercolour on paper)

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.

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No Hat #46

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

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The painting Molly Zuckerman-Hartung bought

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.

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The Gymnast

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.

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Jean Smith at the opening of The Black Dot Museum of Political Art exhibition at Northern Gallery in Olympia, Washington, 2010.

2010, Jean Smith at the opening of The Black Dot Museum of Political Art exhibition at Northern Gallery in Olympia, Washington.

Jean Smith is a painter, a novelist and the singer in the underground rock band Mecca Normal. Born in Vancouver, Canada in 1959.

7" vinyl on K Records, cover art by Jean Smith, 2011

7″ vinyl on K Records, cover art by Jean Smith, 2011.

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).

Fred Hollingsworth house in North Vancouver. Photo by Selwyn Pullan.

1963, Fred Hollingsworth house in North Vancouver. Photo by Selwyn Pullan.

MacKillop family at home (1963). Photo by Selwyn Pullan.

1963, the  family at home. Photo by Selwyn Pullan.

MacKillop family on the cover of Canadian Homes Magazine, a weekend supplement to The Vancouver Province newspaper, 1963. Photo by Selwyn Pullan.

1963, the family on the cover of Canadian Homes Magazine, a weekend supplement to The Vancouver Province newspaper. Photo by Selwyn Pullan.

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.

1965, Super Valu ad in the Vancouver Sun. Art director John MacKillop of Lovick's; daughter Jean on the side of the shopping cart.

1965, Vancouver Sun. Jean on the side of the shopping cart.

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.

1974, self-portrait (11 x 17″ watercolour on paper)

1974, self-portrait age 14 (11 x 17″ watercolour on paper)

1979, clear cut behind Don Jarvis' house in West Vancouver (11 x 17" watercolour on paper).

1979, Clear Cut — behind Don Jarvis’ house in West Vancouver (11 x 17″ watercolour on paper) by Jean Smith.

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.


Jean Smith at the San Francisco Public Library, 2012.

2012, Jean Smith reading an excerpt from her novel “The Black Dot Museum of Political Art” at San Francisco’s LitQuake — the west coast’s largest literary festival. The event included PowerPoint images of from the story (below).

Video of Jean Smith’s LitQuake presentation.

Images from the PowerPoint:

Odele's paintings being removed from the farmhouse. Illustration for an excerpt from The Black Dot Museum of Political Art, a novel by Jean Smith. Part of  a PowerPoint presentation at LitQuake, 2012.

Odele’s paintings being removed from the farmhouse. Illustration for an excerpt from The Black Dot Museum of Political Art, a novel by Jean Smith.

Martin Lewis' opening at The Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Illustration for an excerpt in Oystercatcher Magazine. Part of  a PowerPoint presentation at LitQuake, 2012.

Martin Lewis’ art opening in the novel The Black Dot Museum of Political Art. Illustration for an excerpt in Oystercatcher Magazine.

From the Raven Coal Mine series in The Black Dot Museum of Political Art, a novel by Jean Smith. In the story, narcissist Martin Lewis alters his traditional landscapes to attract the attention of a young political activist. Part of  a PowerPoint presentation at LitQuake, 2012.

“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

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