The Hat #54, a recent painting by Jean Smith. In color here. View all of Smith's recent paintings at jeansmithpainter.wordpress.com.
“Strong white male
Here's a world for you
And most of us are the ones to lose”
“Our first show was opening for DOA, which was great,” Jean Smith says. “Absolutely nobody was interested.” Smith is one half of the long-running experimental duo Mecca Normal. The band’s first show, which took place in 1984 at a place called the Smilin’ Buddha in Vancouver, was something of a wake up call. “It was like we weren’t part of the thing that we felt we were part of,” she says. “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.”
Over 30 years later, Mecca Normal has not only outlasted most of their punk forebears, they are also still writing songs about politics and protest, and still staying true to their feminist, anti-capitalist ideals. Smith, now 57, has lived a life that could serve as a model on how not to sell out. Still based in Vancouver, Canada, she has spent the past several years working a series of part-time jobs, which allowed her to devote much of her time to art: playing music, writing novels, and lately, painting.
Last winter, though, she grew increasingly frustrated with her work situation. “I quit one stupid job and then I took a job at Whole Foods, which was horrible,” she says. She worked as a cashier, a position that put a strain on her wrists. “I need my wrists for writing and painting and guitar, and chopping my onions, and other things,” Smith says. Another part-time job at The Home Depot was similarly draining. “I don’t mind working. I kind of like the structure,” she explains. “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….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.” Around this time, she decide to try an experiment. In February, she began a series of paintings, portraits mostly. “I decided in the dead of winter, I’m just gonna paint 5 paintings a day,” she says. “I thought I would do little landscapes, you know bang those out, and sell whatever number just enough to pay my expenses.”
She put an announcement about the paintings on Facebook, and posted a photo of a portrait she had done. It sold within hours. Others messaged her, wanting to pay up front for her next work. Smith wasn’t planning on making portraits, but the overwhelming interest changed the direction she’d thought of taking. “It just started with this huge flurry of energy,” she says. “People were kind of clamoring to get them. I was just shocked, and so it began.” It’s easy to see their appeal; the work is striking. The portraits are colorful, expressionist studies of unknown people - mostly but not all women; all have feminine attributes.
“I like to learn something new through every painting experience because for me, that’s what it is,” she tells me. “A painting is about the time that went into the painting. The time of the painting. And 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 all together 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.”
Although best known for her work as a musician, Smith grew up surrounded by visual art. Both of her parents were painters, and her father was also an art director in the advertising world. As a result, Smith started doing self portraits as a teenager, thinking about her own image and the those of the women in her father’s advertisements. “I became fascinated with magazines and images of women,” she says. “I drew all sorts of different colors into my face - purples and greens. They weren’t glamorous by any means, but I was painting.”
Smith sees a connection between her work as a painter and her DIY experience in Mecca Normal. You create something, promote it yourself, connect to journalists to talk about the work. Mecca Normal often uses interviews as an opportunity to talk about important issues - like feminism or grassroots organizing. “So that brings about pressure I put on myself, to challenge myself in painting more political subject matter than the faces of women, which sometimes it just strikes me as a funny pursuit,” she says. “But then again, to be independent and out of the workforce, and maintaining my livelihood by painting is kind of political in and of itself.”
Ageism, long commonplace in the music industry, is also present in the art world. “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,” she says. “There’s a big fascination in culture with what’s new and who’s young and keen and gorgeous and whatever. I mean there is a certain amount of ageism just built into culture and society overall, that I certainly feel. Like 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. Like I’m a legal secretary, like I’ve had my artistic phase or something...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.”
One of Mecca Normal’s best-known songs, “I Walk Alone,” deals with the experience of existing in the world as a woman. “I go downtown/I go out alone/This city’s my home/I walk alone.” It appears on their first, self-titled record, released on their own label, Smarten Up! The band plays it at almost every show, with Smith often ad-libbing that it’s her right to walk wherever she wants to.
Mecca Normal has challenged sexism from the beginning, a stance which helped inspire the fledgling riot grrrl movement in the 1980s and 90s. “When I saw her, I was just like, that’s it. I’m done. I’m sold,” Kathleen Hanna said in a 2010 interview. “In the early days I would talk a lot on stage between songs,” Smith says. “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,” she says. “When people like Kathleen or Alison 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.” Bikini Kill drummer Tobi Vail cited Smith as an early inspiration on her zine-turned-blog, Jigsaw. “Before I had studied feminist theory or read much women's history, Jean Smith's song lyrics were one of the main sources for feminist analysis in my life,” Vail wrote.
The band likes to draw this line from Mecca Normal to riot grrrl; it helps provide a context for their work and how the music industry has changed. “When we started, we wanted to change the world,” Smith says. “We weren’t looking for a record contract.” Seeing their influence on riot grrrl manifest into a powerful movement that changed the music landscape is significant. In the early 2000s, Smith and Lester began talking about their legacy with a touring project aptly called “How Art & Music Can Change the World.” They showed images of their visual art, performed, and talked about how art can be a part of social movements, which she feels is important because “typically people are naysayers and feel that you can’t change anything.”
For now, Smith says she is “probably happier” than she’s ever been, content to fill her days with painting and other creative pursuits. (Mecca Normal recently played three dates opening for The Julie Ruin.) “I really like to make things and show them to people, whether it’s music or books, writing, painting,” she says. “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 using just what I have in front of me: my brain, my hand, some device, whether it’s a musical note or a story, 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 ever given me is protect your 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 bit of a challenge. 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.”
Kerry Cardoza is a writer and journalist based in Chicago who focuses on the intersections of art, gender, and social justice. She sings in Espejos and co-runs Amigos, an independent art press. Sagittarius. Her favorite artist is Daniella Ben-Bassat. Follow her on Twitter @booksnotboys.