$100 USD portrait paintings available (14 x 11″ acrylic on canvas panel and paper). Music by Mecca Normal (Jean Smith and David Lester).
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.
TOTAL: $310 USD
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I can’t really reduce the price of my $100 USD paintings any further, but I will cover any extra postage above $10 USD on any set of 3.
I’m always amazed to see what people put together, so here are some of my picks by threes because three is better than two in terms of composition.
I selected paintings based on variables including color, composition (the size of the head and which way they are looking) demeanor, and style — mostly putting different styles together. I hope putting them together in something other than chronological order offers another way to view them.
Click the text beneath sets to go to larger images.
Contemporary portrait paintings (acrylic 11 x 14″ on canvas panels)
All content on this page (c) 2017 Jean Smith
Early in 2016, while writing a YA novel about a rock band, I left a part time retail job when I began selling enough paintings (11 x 14″) on FaceBook to pay my bills. Since then I’ve painted around five hundred faces – the vast majority of women. I began painting self-portraits at thirteen to express an intensity I possessed that I didn’t see in advertising and magazine images of women at that time (1973). I’ve continued to explore strong female expression in my art practice, which includes writing, music and painting.
literary fiction, 1993
A self-portrait photo on the cover of Mecca Normal’s 12th album (Kill Rock Stars, 2006) – songs from my yet-to-be published novel “Love Wants You.”
As the lyricist and singer in the band Mecca Normal, I have been writing about women and social justice since 1984. Most people who see my paintings know my background – or they are exposed to it online because of its proximity to where my paintings are posted. Viewers would understand that, at the very least, I’m not objectifying women, but beyond that I haven’t written an artist statement, other than to offer that I paint attitudes more than beauty or other superficial qualities, and that the vast amount of time involved in creating, honing and moving characters around in fiction informs my painting process as I keep working on pieces until I achieve a sort of complete personhood that exudes emotional depth rather than a concentration on physical attributes, which is the essence of how women are typically valued. In our society, what we look like is always the most important thing about us.
The long history of women as subjects in art made by men is intertwined with women not making art themselves. At this point in my artistic practice, I am painting without an overt political agenda, allowing my contemporary portrait paintings to speak for themselves.
From my recent email to David Lester about my new series “Bodies”
“The women seem empowered. The source material (an illustration by a woman — Jacqui Morgan) is from burlesque, which seems to me more powerful than stripping. The two images might be the same person – one is acting (performing in costume), the other is less defined, in motion, nebulous. Two very different roles and degrees of vulnerability.
The performer in stripes could easily be holding a microphone – giving a semi-naked woman, a burlesque dancer, a voice. My voice, really. Plus, those striped stockings and long, fingerless gloves give it a sense of old-timey classic circus. Or, to me, a very Picasso sense. Growing up, we had a book in which he was wearing a lot of striped clothing. It also harks back to Lautrec’s paintings of women and night life.
Interesting too that the stockings and gloves cover parts of the body that are actually acceptable to show in public, so there’s a kind of reversal going on. The stripes – yes//no – good//bad – light//dark – lines that bend around the arms and legs, giving them their shape.
And, of course, when I titled the series it also refers to the Sex Pistols’ song “Bodies” – and our version of it in Atlanta which isn’t as much about the lyrics as it is about being on stage with a voice (being alive with choices).”
“Bodies” (acrylic on canvas board, 11 x 14″) May 28, 2017. SOLD
“Bodies #2″ (acrylic on canvas board, 11 x 14”) May 28, 2017. SOLD
“Bodies #3″ (acrylic on canvas board, 11 x 14”) May 29, 2017. $100 USD plus shipping.
“Bodies #4″ (acrylic on canvas board, 11 x 14”) May 29, 2017. $100 USD plus shipping.
“Horse in Field” by Jean Smith (11 x 14″ acrylic on paper) SOLD
A fairly in depth summary of my work on Women in Art History (Instagram) by art history instructor and creative writing professor Lucretia Tye Jasmine who recently bought my painting “Horse in Field”. Women in Art History is also on FaceBook
“Jean Smith, a Canadian, is an artist as well as a musician and writer. She was born on August 1, 1959, in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her portraits are smooth and rich, with a velvety brush that emphasizes subjectivity through inward, contemplative, or direct gazes. Critters, musicians, women in front of the word “hotel,” men in white underwear, and women washing their hair are intriguing subjects with serious attentions. Singers whose lipsticked mouths open at a microphone are affirmed by painting titles that identify them as angry women in rock.
She paints, makes films and music, writes, and lectures. YouTube videos showcase her art and music along with her process. She also orchestrates tours: musical, literary, and educational. Smith’s longtime collaboration with bandmate David Lester, whom she met in 1981 while they were working at a newspaper, encompasses visual art, and art as activism. Anti-authoritarianism is announced in D.I.Y. (do-it-yourself) productivity.
She and Lester formed The Black Wedge in 1986, an international music and poetry tour comprised of anti-authoritarian musicians. Feminism is practiced in a life’s work that promotes self-generated creativity and collaboration. The art and lecture series, How Art & Music Can Change The World, is their 2002 presentation which continues to tour classrooms (high schools and universities), art galleries, and book stores. Smith and Lester’s band, Mecca Normal, is considered a pioneering riot grrrl band. riot grrrl is a Third Wave feminist arts and music revolution.
Smith’s film about her online dating experiences examine female independence and a recent series of paintings concern 9/11. Some of Smith’s art is about Pussy Riot, the Fourth Wave feminist punk rock group from Russia jailed for musical protest in a church.
A two-time recipient of Canada Council for the Arts awards recognizing Smith’s work as a writer, Smith’s paintings are sought after by a variety of luminaries and scholars, spanning the established and the underground, indicating Smith’s subversive success and influence.” – Lucretia Tye Jasmine
I made a video for the Mecca Normal song “Cherry Flowers” (Dovetail, K Records, 1992) fairly spontaneously. It’s a pretty song about springtime and I did a cherry blossom painting recently, so it occurred to me to connect them. But, as I was putting the elements together, I recalled more about the song’s meaning, which I don’t think I’ve ever been asked about or expressed.
That got me to thinking about all Mecca Normal’s songs and the various meanings tucked up into them, so I listed all the songs, created a song meaning legend and assigned codes to most of the songs with a note saying that some of the songs need to be reviewed due to their nature, which might be psychological, poetic or complex.
As for “Cherry Flowers” (1992), it is about the geography of borders, clandestine crossings in vehicles (row boats heading for the united caves of america) laden with cherry flowers. Feel free to interpret what the cherry flowers are (maybe art and music?), but, in the song, “seven men in white shirts watch the needle on the gauge, rise and fall, swing and dive, on the border” using specialized equipment to assess the validity of those attempting to cross.
“Spring” (11 x 14″ acrylic on canvas panel). $100 USD plus shipping.
$100 USD Paintings Currently Available
Music by Mecca Normal (featuring Rat Bastard on guitar in the first song).
I grew up with painters. Both my parents are painters, good painters. And I thought I too would go that route, or be what is known as a commercial artist in that time, in that era. So I went to art school for a little bit, but I didn’t really – you know I’d had so much exposure to art growing up that it just didn’t feel like a fit for me. So I went and started Mecca Normal and that became my sort of artistic release in that direction. And I suppose in recent years that the longevity of Mecca Normal is both fabulous and it’s something that’s easy enough to maintain, that doesn’t need a lot of attention, so there’s room for both Dave and I to work on other projects which makes life very interesting, plus we’ve toured, we’ve made the records and that’s not really what one wants to do… you know, repeating the same thing forever. Especially where we’re at, because it’s harder and harder to make the thing work on many different levels. So I have been taking part time jobs. For a number of years I was a fitness technician at Curves gym for women, and that was great because I could interact with the women and talk about the novels that I’d been writing over the last 15 years in solitude. So that worked really well, to have this sort of social conversational level. So I looked for part-time jobs that I thought I would have some kind of benefit hidden away within the structure of the job, even though they’re retail or whatever.
But I’ve been just working in that way, part time, and then devoting the bulk of my time to writing the novels. Then I took a job at Whole Foods, which was horrible. I was a cashier, and I basically – my wrists were just toast. It was Christmas. It was a very small store and I was doing all of the memorizing. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was memorize all those crazy produce codes. I thought I was going into customer service, which at the job previous meant something else. Anyway, so I kind of wrecked my wrists. And I need my wrists for writing and painting and guitar, and chopping my onions, and other things. And so I got out of there and I went to Home Depot, which is a very similar, corporate structure. It was no good either. They had a different way of abusing their employees. They wanted me there at 5 in the morning, 7 days a week, as a part-time worker, watering the plants. And when I said, Well, I’m just not really gonna do that, that doesn’t work for me, they just ignored it.
But right around that time – I’d only had the job a couple of months – I’d started the painting series in February, out of a moment of, I have to say desperation or frustration with these stupid jobs. And that’s why I kind of detailed them, because, you know I don’t mind working. I kind of like the structure, it can be good, right? You can get your social life in, I got my workouts in at Curves. That all was fine. But when you start damaging yourself or putting yourself in harm’s way psychologically or your time’s jeopardized, you really have to be careful that you just don’t fall into that and then there goes any sort of, you know, ability to maintain the purpose for having the stupid job is so you have all your time, most of it, to do what you should be doing, which is the music or the writing or the, in this case, the painting. So, in the dead of winter, I decided I’m just gonna paint 5 paintings a day. I think I said it to Dave out loud, “I’m going to do 5 paintings a day for $100 bucks.” And I thought I would do little landscapes, you know bang those out, and sell whatever number just enough to pay my expenses.
But when I announced it on Facebook, it seemed to be… -I ask Facebook quite a few questions. I don’t know if you see my posts, I know we are friends…
Yeah I think I do usually.
Yeah, so I tend to ask Facebook for whatever I need. LAUGHS. So I announced this project and with it, I put up a painting. A portrait. And it sold within a number of hours to an art instructor at a university. And next thing I know, an interior designer in Seattle is saying, “I want to give you the money right now for the next one.” And I went, whoa, whoa, whoa. I wasn’t really planning on doing portraits, I just kind of put up a painting. I’m gonna do a bunch of painting. But the portraits, I just never had any idea ever that people would want portraits of unknown people. It’s not really about the rendition of a specific person. That isn’t the point. And nobody ever asks, who that is. Very rarely do people say, “Oh, that looks like so-and-so.” In fact, if they ever do put that on my Facebook page, I take it down because I want people to be able to look at it in their own way. Instead of saying, “Oh that looks like Christie Brinkley.” And then they’re looking at it like looking for Christie Brinkley. Who needs that?
So it just started with this a huge flurry of energy and there was just an audience. People were kind of clamoring to get them. And I was just shocked and so it began. But I started doing self portraits when I was 13. My dad, as well as being a painter, was an art director. He was flying out of Vancouver to go to New York to work with Vogue photographers. Vancouver was a small town at that point, but he kind of made this his own trek to introduce high level of photography into ad campaigns that were either local or national in Canada. I became fascinated with magazines and images of women. I had terrible acne. I drew all sorts of different colors into my face – purples and greens. They weren’t glamorous by any means. But I was painting. Both my parents would give me their tubes of squeezed out color, brushes they no longer needed, you know, because they were all sort of worn out.
I guess as a teenager I was sort of looking at my face and wondering about the images that my dad was working on professionally of models. All these gorgeous women. I don’t know. I didn’t come to any conclusions. But that’s what I was doing. Also I was grounded a lot for various misdemeanors. LAUGHS. So I was in my room a lot, doing these paintings. And over the years I’ve always tried to do at least one self portrait a year, just an exercise. So that’s basically how it got started, that’s the long version I’ve given you there.
Keeping it going?
Well, it’s paying my bills every month. Pretty much exactly. I have fairly low overhead. There have been a couple of months that fell short by a little bit, but then the next month it became a little bit more than I needed. So it’s just evened out for the 8 or so months I’ve been doing it. Right now there seems to be a bit of an upswing. Every month is different, you know. It dried up a bit at the end of the summer when people become preoccupied with realigning their lives I guess. It seems to be good again right now. And then I’m gonna do some sort of activity that might encourage people to consider buying them for Christmas. So there’s that to consider. You know, it isn’t that different from things we’ve done before. When you release an album, in our case, because we’re mainly a DIY outfit, we do a lot of connecting with journalists and radio and doing the interviews because we like communicating in that way because we usually have something more to say than, you know, here’s our album and aren’t we great kind of thing. We’ve always tried to use the opportunity of interviews to talk about feminism or grassroots organizing or what have you. More political sort of content, rather than simply a straight-up band interview. So that brings about pressure I put on myself, probably to challenge myself in painting more political subject matter than the faces of women, which is a bit… sometimes it just strikes me as a funny pursuit. But then again, to be independent and out of the work-force, and maintaining my livelihood by painting is kind of political in and of itself, especially in this day and age. And at this age, I’m 57, being in a band, I don’t think anything more is gonna happen with Mecca Normal that’s really a surprise, let’s say. I don’t think there’s really room for women my age in rock at our level, really, unless you’ve already kind of made it. Would you concur to some degree?
I mean, yeah, for the most part. Kim Gordon obviously comes to mind.
But she’s already big. And we didn’t get big. So you know to expect something, that we’re gonna get discovered in some way I just think is highly unlikely. And also, you know, with the painting as well, you do hear – in fact, I was watching that Carmen Herrera documentary the other night and one of her chums was saying that it’s fairly well-known in the art world, in the official art world, that galleries don’t really want to take on new artists over 35. Young and upcoming, there’s a big fascination in culture with what’s new and who’s young and keen and gorgeous and whatever. You know, I mean… there is a certain amount of ageism just built into culture and society overall, that I certainly feel. That I sort of had my time and I should just sort of go away now. I don’t really have anywhere to go. You know I still actually have to pay my bills. It isn’t like I’m a legal secretary, that I’ve had my artistic phase or something. I’ll go do that. So I do have to… you know I’m on the planet. I believe in many ways all of my skills are better than ever and it’s sort of frustrating to find that I’m less. I feel like I have less worth as a woman in general. You know, by appearance I’m certainly invisible in society walking around, women my age are just not visible, really. It’s an interesting transition.
Anyway I’m very happy. I’m probably happier than I’ve ever been. And it’s kind of a funny thing, you don’t expect to be X’d out of where you feel you were because things are getting better. I mean, Mecca Normal is maybe better than ever. And our methods of working are being fine-tuned, and yet there’s less interest. There’s this strange phenomenon that you have to cope with in a way and not let it get to you. Having this success with the painting is something that I will continue with, but I have no idea where it’s going. I really like the idea of keeping the price low. I know I have several people who are in the official art world who tell me I need to raise my prices. That they’re just not in line with what they should be. But I don’t really want to do, you know, if they’re $500, then you’re sitting around, waiting. Maybe you only sell one a month, right? If that. If that. So there seems to be some energy, for people who maybe don’t buy art at all.
Right. It seems affordable.
It does seem affordable for people. You know, they kind of wait for one they like. And a lot of artists are buying them, so it’s connecting with people in that way. And artists typically don’t have tons of money, but they’re feeling like it’s affordable and there’s excitement about it. Yeah so it’s all sort of a surprise and I manage to make it as stressful as possible. LAUGHS. Tossing and turning. “Uh, should I do a hat or a no hat?” So it seems to take up all my time.
How long do you typically spend on each painting?
You know, I could say 57 years because that’s what goes into it, my entire life experience really. That’s a bit of a cheeky answer and probably not entirely original. But, you know, the more I paint, the faster it gets. If I start to replicate techniques that I’ve discovered and honed, but I don’t really like doing that. I like to learn something new through every painting experience because for me, that’s what it is. A painting is about the time that went into the painting. The time of the painting. The painting itself is almost the byproduct. The painting itself, the noun, is just kind of a token of the time. It’s like a recording, is it about the time the musicians were altogether and the energy and everything that happened in that room, as opposed to a CD of it. To me, a painting is just a record of the time spent painting. You know, I mean, I’m good at knowing when to stop, but I certainly don’t always hit what I want to get out of it right away. So there might be 200 different versions underneath the final piece, really. So it could be anywhere from, you know, an hour and a half to 4 hours, let’s say.
Are you painting from your mind?
No I’m always painting from a photograph. I have a monitor right in front of me, almost where you would have a mirror if you were looking up and you’d be seeing the image. I tend to use the same photographs over and over again, but I don’t have any interest really in replicating the specific individual, so they always look different even though they are the same photo. One of which is a trans model, so in quite a few instances, even though the features are very feminine, there’s sort of a gender neutrality or you know, a sense of androgyny that… it’s feminine, let’s say. I think there’s some sort of interest in that aspect of it. I think there’s some sort of interest in that aspect of it. Are you somebody that’s usually interested in art?
Yeah, I mostly write about art.
Someone who has been very supportive of me, who you probably know, is Molly Zuckerman-Hartung. I don’t know if I’ve ever met her, but I guess she went to Evergreen (State College in Olympia, Washington) and at some point she gave an interview and somebody asked what she listened to when she was painting and she said, and amongst other things, Mecca Normal. So we became aware of her that way.
Yep, yep, I know of her work.
David and I have been putting up our art at Mecca Normal shows… in fact, when we were last in Chicago, which was a long time ago, we played at The Empty Bottle and then we put up the art in the upstairs room, the Bottle Top.
Yeah so, we would get to the club really early and put up, you know, maybe 80 pieces of art that we lugged around with us. And some sold, and other times we were just happy to have it up, you know? The places that we would play music, that that was the basis of what we created in the Black Dot Museum of Political Art, which is primarily an online archive of political art that has yet to come to any sort of bricks and mortar sense. But it could. I did apply for funding at one point through the Institute of Museum and Library Services in DC, but just one of our kind of side projects, starting a museum. LAUGHS. You know, it just kind of came up as an idea to kind of corral the political art and the lecture, the classroom event that we do, How Art & Music Can Change the World, that we’ve been doing since about 2003. So we show images of my art, Dave’s art, and talk about how we’ve changed the world. And however bombastic that sounds, we like to talk about the whole riot grrrl thing and why that was important. And we are frequently cited as an inspiration to the co-founders of riot grrrl. With the idea that people can use art for social, part of the social movement – progressive social change – even though typically people are naysayers and they feel that you can’t change anything. So why even bother trying?
Right. Right, talk about Bikini Kill. How does that make you feel to have inspired a huge movement?
Well I’m sure that there were many factors that inspired them, as well as their own relationships and the talent that they had. So, we’re just a bit of a — you know, to us, it’s a big deal to be able to say that. It’s helpful to have context. I mean when we started I had no idea that would be kind of our legacy, or the context, but it is. When we started, we wanted to change the world. We didn’t… you know, we weren’t looking for a record contract. We wanted to change the world. Which… it’s gratifying to feel that something that you actually set out to do, got some results based on how you approached it. However sort of, you know, who wants to talk about I did this, I influenced so-and so, it’s all stuff, it’s a bit, what would be a good word for what that is?
Well, yeah, bragging definitely. But it’s also just stuff that nobody wants to really say. I don’t feel anymore comfortable probably than anybody else who would say that sort of stuff about changing the world. It makes you sound terribly naive. And yet, there are things that that move things along, right? And just as it happens, we have some evidence that we were to some degree, part of what they drew upon for inspiration and I think that’s worth noting. Allison was being asked in Pitchfork a couple days ago – did you see her, Allison Wolfe? And she graciously included Mecca Normal, which is very good for… We are kind of out of the loop, so it’s good for us to feel part of something and to be, you know… It’s hard enough being this strange duo from this corner of Canada. Two older people who are just, you know… who want to still contribute and be part of culture. It’s already unnecessarily difficult. A lot of time gets wasted at these stupid part-time jobs. That’s what so great about taking matter into my own hands with painting. But, having said that, we’re actually rehearsing right now to do 3 opening shows, opening for The Julie Ruin – Seattle, Vancouver, Portland.
That’ll be fantastic. It’s like making the switch to Mecca Normal when I feel like I should be painting. And I’ve got a literary agent who’s submitting one novel around to publishers. So I need to finish up another novel. When I’m painting so much just to pay the rent, then the other things kind of fall by the wayside. I am certainly not complaining because it is a pretty great time to be able to pay the rent, which was my ambition in this case. And to organize it without having to go to a gallery and submit a portfolio and wait until a show comes up and all of that sort of time where you’re not really there when people are coming to look at the work. You’re there at the opening but then the show is up and then you’re off doing whatever you do. Whereas the way I’ve organized this, I photograph them as soon as they’re done and put them on my Facebook page. And it gets immediate results which I really like. I like the social nature of it. I don’t feel as isolated, that people will see it and make a comment. Sometimes it sells really quickly, it will be a matter minutes, and that’s really exciting. But there’s an immediacy that you wouldn’t get. It’s more like being on tour when you get to play in front of people and feel the response. Which is dirrenet than when you’re working on an album in a studio for years and years and you don’t see anybody.
And you get no feedback.
Yeah, so there’s this great energy of painting. It feels like I’m really attached to the audience which happens to suit my particular type of personality. I also have spent 15 years in absolute solitude writing 4 or 5 novels, but I’m ready for a bit more sort of interaction right now. I’m full of babble today. Do you interview painters in this manner?
I mean I love to talk. We’ve always done a lot of interviews and stuff. Are the painters the type of people that want to tell you everything that’s on their mind?
Well I talk to probably more artists who are just starting out so they’re really not used to talking about their work or even being interviewed. Or they feel less comfortable.
Well that’s good that you’re giving them something to consider about how they represent themselves.
How has music scene changed, how has your idea of being a musician changed?
When we started, we were going to a lot of hardcore shows. A lot of punk shows. And it was really very noticeable here in Vancouver that it was almost all guys on stage. And I felt that feminism, as a subject… They were political, that’s the thing. And so it interested me. I’d missed the whole original punk scene, which was also highly politicized lyrics, The Subhumans and D.O.A. I mean D.O.A., I’d definitely been to a million of their shows and I would have to say I was very influenced by Joe in particular and the others members of the band. Well Wimpy was the singer in the Subhumans as well – very politicized person, lyricist. And that kind of gave me a strong interest in what I was learning about social philosophy, feminism, anarchism, capitalism – how the world was structured in terms of economics. I was very keen to express what I thought would be useful. And also well-received within that community, but we really weren’t because we were such an unusual configuration and I think there was more conservatism in the structure of the bands. They were more related to the punk bands in the UK and that sort of energy. So when we popped up in Vancouver, I… actually, our first show was opening for D.O.A., which was great.
Dave’s brother was the manager at the time, so that’s how we got that. Absolutely nobody was interested. It was like we weren’t part of the thing that we felt we were part of. So it was this weird sort of wake up call that yeah, we went to the shows and everything, but once we tried to represent what we were thinking about in the configuration we realized we wanted to stick with, it just wasn’t what people wanted to put up with. We were room-clearers. Totally we were. People went away, went outside, when we came on. So we left town very quickly, went to other cities where we were really well received. So there’s that thing, you know, if you come from somewhere else, there’s a bit of a mystique about you. So that was interesting. In exactly the same mode of operation in other cities like San Francisco, LA, Montreal, and New York in particular, we were just doing great. People really were interested and they were clapping and cheering and giving us encores. We knew that there was something weird about just that alone. So I think at that time we started to analyze why did some people… we polarized people too, right? So that’s the other thing. Within a community of people that we would meet, let’s say in Olympia for example. It seemed like most people liked us for some reason, but we know for sure that there would be people that really, really don’t like us. And behind the scenes there would be these weird debates going on. No doubt, I don’t know about them. They had to happen, about how terrible we were, and other people going, God, no they’re the best thing ever. And that played out too when we got… We put out our first album ourselves and sent it around to a few college radio stations. Actually, a guy out of Cleveland from the band My Dad is Dead ran something called Pollution Control. They were extremely helpful to us in the beginning when they sent out a handful of the album to radio stations.
But we got feedback from the station in Edmonton. I got 2 pieces of mail in my mailbox and I remember opening the mail as if it were yesterday, in 1986. We were in the charts. We were number one at their station. It just completely seemed bizarre, like I was dreaming. The next mail was the radio station’s magazine, whatever it was called, that they put out. And there’s an article in there saying we were the worst band in the world. A big long expose about how Dave should kill me. And I was just… I couldn’t believe this was all happening, to that extent. That’s the sort of polarization. So when you talk about how’s it changed as a musician, I feel like we’ve taken on a lot more than just how we write songs. We’ve really taken on culture. And especially when we saw the energy emerging in Olympia because basically in the early days I would talk a lot on stage between songs. One of things I very directly spoke about was telling women to get together with their friends and start bands. It’s stupid that no women are in bands. It’s punk. Write some lyrics, sort of berating people in the audience. Saying, Come on. And so that’s when people like Kathleen or Allison talk about us being an inspiration. It’s not some sort of nuanced situation where they just happened to listen to our record and like what we were doing, they felt that they would do something too. It was very direct speaking and communication other than just the music. So, again, working within poetry circles and touring that way, touring as political musicians, touring within a feminist context, or touring as, you know, touring with Godspeed on the west coast in 2000, where I actually opened solo and then Mecca Normal and then Godspeed. So you know in that type of audience, people have arrived for this big, expansive experience of listening to all the subtleties of sound and then you get us hacking away, our minimalist diatribe. You just couldn’t be more diametrically opposed, right? But they… actually they asked me to open their shows. And then I said, well can Mecca Normal play too? LAUGHS. Which is really just asking, can my guitar player come along? So it’s kind of funny. So in that way, it still all feels like the shows coming up, with The Julie Ruin, I feel like I have to represent my entire career and I feel like I want to have new songs and I feel like I want to expose her audience… you know, take into consideration what the show is.
Every case almost seems different when we play. So I guess that’s what has become part of our m.o. is to apply ourselves to a wide variety of situations. And for a time I was writing lyrics that were coming right out of the novel, so they were very long songs which I really like the storytelling nature of it, but I’m currently much more interested in more energetic songs that are really, kind of more explosive with the voice and really get into much simpler lyrics and using the voice in a louder, longer notes held and not so much to do with absorbing an entire life story in a song.
So those are things I guess that have changed. I guess everything keeps changing. I was… I drank for the first… well I quit at 40. I quit sometimes periodically, so it wasn’t always a force, but it was part of being in a band. Certainly quitting at 40 and getting older and not really feeling part of the youth generation, you know the current youth generation – those are all things that sort of separate you from how you feel about working in bars and being out in that environment late at night. So it’s meant – I think we almost prefer shows that are in the daytime. That’s how we ended up starting doing university classrooms and libraries. Those sorts of events that are more to do with communication in many different ways rather than just being in a bar. The whole rock and party atmosphere was all great while it was happening but, I guess everybody kind of ideally makes their way out of the party zone at some point. It’s like an idea.
You’ve touched on this… you’ve always had political lyrics.
As I say, I was indoctrinated early into the value of creativity as sort of the ultimate way of living. It wasn’t like there were other things going on. My parents are quite… pretty extreme people. My mom graduated from art school and she spent a lot of time painting. She had her own studio, as did my dad in the back of the house. I always really liked it that when I would get home from school and she was out there painting, and I would just, go and say hi and try not to disturb her and try to see what she was working on, but I could tell she wanted me to go away and that I liked. I liked that she wanted her time and I understood it because I was of the same nature, you know. So she’d come in and make dinner. She maybe didn’t really want to be a housewife, and she was selling her art to a gallery and professionally and everything but, I liked all that, that she wasn’t putting me first and… you know, that creativity was the main thing. Her painting was really important and my dad always felt that she was the better painter. And he just loved her work. It was healthy in that way amongst many facets that maybe weren’t as healthy in whatever dysfunctional arrangement we made in our little group. Our family. But other than that, what I really enjoy is – well, it prevents me from having a lot of behaviors, I think. LAUGHS. I really like to make things and show them to people, whether it’s music or books, writing, painting, whatever it is. I find it a great way to live, everything about it appeals to me. Making, fixing, gluing. Making things that weren’t there a minute ago out of just what I have in front of me. Using my brain, my hands, some device whether it’s a musical note or a story, or a bunch of crayons. I just find that a very hopeful sort of ability. It prevents sorrow in life. It’s a thing to protect. The only piece of advice my dad has even given me is protect my creativity. That’s the thing. Don’t let people get in there and mess with you and make you less able to enjoy the creativity that’s there. And then to infuse it with some direction, that it has a potential to inspire people or to challenge people or introduce a concept or fortify a direction socially or politically is just kind of an added challenge – and it’s exciting that it can do that. That you can do that. That you can reach other people, other humans. You can reach them on a level that isn’t superficial or isn’t simply language. There’s face to face language and gestures of common socializing, let’s say. All of that is very interesting, but it’s also part of the great friendship that Dave and I built. It’s a creative partnership.
So there’s a lot of accountability built in. Where he’s super encouraging and so happy that the art is working for me right now. He’s… I’m happy that I’m happier, that I’m not sort of this person for whom nothing is really working out too well. That I’m always telling him about that kind of thing, and I don’t want to be that person. So it makes the creative partnership a better. There’s some success happening with it that Dave is totally sharing in. And that’s… I feel like I’m kind of holding up my end of it. And that’s a great thing to have for people who work independently. I always try, you know, in our classroom event to encourage people to find creative partners, especially ones who don’t have the same skills essentially. Someone you can talk over ideas with, or maybe they’re a photographer so they get great shots of your art or your paintings, if that’s what you do. Just trading skills and coming up with ideas, brainstorming, and it’s probably pretty tricky to find exactly the right person but then again, if you start young enough with that type of collaboration, I think you can modify your expectations and make something really valuable. That kind of relationship can be a great component in the art-making process. Because a lot of it is just you and whatever you’re doing, within whichever discipline. And you can wonder… you know, it’s not essentially so someone can tell you whether you’re good or bad. I just think there’s a value, people probably find it more when they’re in art school. That’s the thing about being in a band; there’s always that level of communication. Bands are inherently social. Where some of these other disciplines are not. LAUGHS. I feel like this is such an abnormal conversation, I’m just blah blah blah. I feel sort of selfish, I guess that’s what people who aren’t used to structuring themselves into an interview, it’s just sort of weird, to steamroll over the person who’s only being nice and asking questions. Don’t ask them much of anything. You don’t care.
That’s true. It is a little one-sided.
I guess I’m noticing it more because this is probably the first interview I’ve done on painting.
I made a film the other day.
I know. I saw.
I’m so happy with that chunk of video. It seemed to get a great response from people in that room in Portland. It seemed sort of flaky in a way. I didn’t know whether I was supposed to be Skyping in or what the hell was happening. They told me this time, but then nobody confirmed it. I figured I should at least make something, then, if I can’t Skype in, then they can show this thing, right? So I just sent it to them like 2:30, and then next thing I know, they’re saying, “No Skype, YouTube livestream.” Oh for God’s sake, why did I just spend 10 hours trying to set that Skype up? And then I turn on YouTube and it’s live and the video I made is just starting in this room in Portland. Like I just sent it to them half an hour ago. And they’re screening it. There’s people there. They’re laughing and clapping and stuff. It was so bizarre. It was great. But it was just so weird.
They seemed to like that. There was some talk of them putting it into the curriculum. I think it worked pretty well. But that’s kind of the first time, I guess I’ve done a couple of videos of trying to speak while I’m painting. It’s kind of a demo, but it’s not that easy to have the voice going at the same time as the painting. it’s so ingrained to be painting in this weird silence. It’s strange to talk. I feel like telling me to shut up. “Shut up! I’m painting.”
Tell me about your books.
I can tell you why you’ve never read any of them.
Two have been published, and they’d both be pretty hard to find. And the other ones that I’ve mentioned are yet to be published. It’s very difficult to make that happen. But I’m very patient so we’ll see what happens with that. But that’s why.
Well I would like to. Some of your songs are political and some are really personal. Like your online dating adventures. People always talk about how striking it is. What is your approach to songwriting?
With the dating specifically, that was one album that came out in 2006 when I was doing the online dating. I do tend to write about things that I find troubling let’s say. So either I’m writing an email to Dave about somebody I just met somebody and this happened and that happened. I find out that they have misrepresented something or you get going in a relationship and I would tell Dave, he’s my friend, but I find when I’m writing things out like that I learn about something because it’s a slower process. Writing is slower than talking. And it accesses different parts of the brain. I was writing things out because I would invariably kind of bump into some other line of thinking, right? I find it valuable. But keeping in mind that I am a fiction writer, you know, and I did write 2 novels about online dating. I’ve now crunched it down to one novel that I’d like to get it published, I’m working on getting it published. But it definitely is a novel. It’s fiction. It’s not specific accounts that are meant to be taken entirely at face value. That became an issue when I was doing the online dating once the album came out and people, you get to know them a little bit, or you even just connect on one of these dating sites, and they learn your name. And what to do you do. Well, I sing. OK, now they realize, wait a second, you write songs about online dating. I’m not going out with you. You just go out with guys to get stories to tell? Uh, no. It became kind of bizarre. And then it was like, well, why are you so worried that I might write a song about you, what do you have planned here, guy? And then I’m thinking, I’m not saying, if the guy’s name is Bob, I’m not saying, you know, Bob is a jerk anyway. So that’s where the fiction comes in. If the guy’s a mechanic, you might say he’s a dentist. You fictionalize whatever aspects. Nobody’s gonna know who this guy is. And if he chooses to say, hey, that song there, that’s about me, right? But people aren’t… people don’t think like that so they just panic in a way. There are these levels of how open am I really? I tend to… I don’t think I’ve ever said this is an interview, but I tend to want to appear to be entirely transparent so people will leave me the hell alone. LAUGHS. Because nobody’s interested in somebody who says everything, right? LAUGHS. Nobody’s ever called me on it. You can just completely say stuff, people go, Wow, no filters there. Whereas I’m fully capable of changing the name of both the guilty and the innocent. I don’t do revenge in songs or whatever. I might paint a person where they’re not happy with the way they look but that might just be my own limitations. LAUGHS. You get a big nose. You were mean to me. So yeah I’m very careful. I normally have a strategy that I’m working from that is part of my art practice and whatever discipline I’m involved in. With that album, The Observer, and when we went on tour in 2006. I was very nervous about talking about anything that was kind of sexy or whatever, but the audience, they were so great. Like the song, Attraction Is Ephemeral, when I say stretching the condom sounded like he was making a balloon animal, and people laughed. That was the first time in the history of Mecca Normal that people were laughing in the middle of a song. Because it was funny.
It is funny.
Yeah, it was funny. The other line that they liked is, he’s gonna bring his grand piano out of storage. And a few other things. I went with it. Things suddenly lightened up. There was nervous laughter. And then we were all in it together. Of course other people had been doing online dating. So it was connecting in that way. I’m not really known to be crass. I take other people’s feelings into consideration. Empathy. I’m a strong believer in empathy. So I take it very seriously not to misuse whatever platform I may be functioning in. But having said that, I do divulge things that are either ultra-specific and yet universal. And I think that’s just a good way to tell a story. Almost the more specific, the more interesting it is. But yet it resonates with people. The specific nature and the details seem to make it more able to channel through what the purpose of the story is. That’s just, I think, story writing skills, right?