Last year, the New York Times name-dropped the legendary 1980s Vancouver duo Mecca Normal as an influence on the Riot Grrrl movement. Earlier in 2019, the critically acclaimed FX comedy Better Things featured the band’s feminist anthem “I Walk Alone” in an episode.
But street cred doesn’t pay the bills for Mecca Normal’s vocalist Jean Smith. To make a living, she turned to her skills as a painter. Since 2016, the multifaceted artist, who has also written two novels, has made a living selling her paintings on Facebook for US$100 a pop.
Her work consists primarily of portraits of women of varying skin tones and features, sometimes in hats and various accessories, like Elizabethan collars and scuba gear. (A collection of her work can be found here.)
Most artists are shy in talking about money, but not Smith, who has used her personal transparency to create an online community. To date, she has sold over 1,200 paintings. This period of self-quarantine has been especially lucrative. Smith broke personal sales records in March (80 paintings sold) and April (93 sold).
Beyond the $1,400 monthly proceeds that she sets aside for living expenses, Smith has pledged further proceeds of her work toward buying property for the Free Artist Residency, a living space for herself and a rotating cast of artists. (Full disclosure: I have known Smith for nearly a decade and my wife has purchased her work.)
Born in 1959 to parents who were also visual artists, Smith started painting self-portraits as a teenager in the early '70s. In 1984, she strayed from visual art to form Mecca Normal with guitarist David Lester and by the mid-1990s the group was praised as a “band to watch” alongside Radiohead by Rolling Stone magazine.
The long-time feminist spoke on the phone from the same East Vancouver apartment she’s lived in for 25 years, one cluttered with art supplies and her parents’ belongings. She works at home on her paintings into the evenings and posts them on Facebook between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. once she’s done.
She spoke about her life and work, offerings her thoughts on #MeToo, and whether her work is pandemic-friendly. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
The Tyee: Tell me about how your $100 painting series started.
Jean Smith: I was working a part-time job and it was becoming unbearable. I decided really quickly that I should just paint every day and sell my painting for a hundred bucks on Facebook. It was really that fast. The first painting I posted sold immediately, and there was somebody else saying, “I’ll give you the money now for whatever you do next.”
I said on Facebook that my expenses are US$1,000 a month. I just laid out the numbers of sold paintings and made it a monthly tally. And that seems to interest people. It’s very transparent, as much of what I’ve done in my life has been, whether it’s revealing my online dating life or being emotional or vulnerable within the songs I’ve written. I found that’s the best way to create community. And I want community to tell people what I’m doing.
I can’t imagine being as honest as you, in a way that isn’t curated for effect. By contrast, your images feel more outward, more posed. Do you source your images?
Yes, they’re all from photos. And typically, they are subjects where I like the lighting or different types of angles of their faces. It’s never about painting a likeness. I’m not doing portraits in that traditional way. I’m allowing emotions to come through. It’s connected to novel writing and the time that you spend developing a character out of nothing. Then you have to move them through a story in a way that their behaviour reveals to the reader what their characteristics are. That’s quite a production.
Having spent 15 years just writing novels, this is just a huge relief where you can see the entire work in front of you at one time. There’s this great freedom, but it comes from all the years of creating other words, music and novels.
In what ways are these self-portraits? Because I noticed that a lot of them feature women with high cheekbones and a bohemian look — like you.
They’re not really to do with what I look like, but maybe I’m attracted to things that are more familiar. I mean, you don’t want to have no cheekbones because that’s not too fun to paint.
Do you feel as though the #MeToo movement, which most of your work predates, has fuelled the demand for your paintings?
I have more than a couple of keen collectors who are not essentially of current cultural proclivities. They’re women more my age, and they’re in it for the long haul and want to contribute to a vision that I have.
Women, I think, are happy to see other women represent them. In this case, a feminist who has used other artistic mediums to put the ideas of feminism out there. When I talk to them on Facebook, they say amazing things about what they perceive in the emotion or the nuances of a slight smile or something. It’s not really overt. Maybe I’m so immersed that I don’t see it being affected by other movements.
In your social media, you talk about your quest to purchase a property in B.C. to live on and to offer live-work space for creators hoping to make art that changes the world. Can you tell me about your Free Artist Residency?
The basis of it started when I began to earn extra money from my painting. The idea became conjoined with the need to find a place to live, which would probably have to be outside of Vancouver. (The property will be legally bequeathed to a yet-to-be-named activist group to continue on with the residency program. It’s a key part of the equation, another angle to subverting property ownership.)
The hunt became a part of the project. I frequently post ideas for specific locations and actual houses that are for sale. I’ve put a couple of offers in on houses and then managed to get out of them when I realized they weren’t appropriate.
I’ve been to look at a handful of places and reported back to people on Facebook. I’ll show some photos and they’ll say, “It looks like the foundation might be wonky.” In this way it’s become a real community enterprise. I’m creating something subversive in that most people don’t buy a house and involve a few thousand other people in the process and then sort of threaten to invite them all to come over and stay awhile.
You’ve had two months of record-breaking sales. Congratulations! Do you think that a pandemic has had any impact on your sales, and do you feel like your work is in any way isolation-friendly?
People are drawn towards creativity right now. I’m trying to order my paint online, but the store is swamped because so many people are taking the time to be creative. Maybe they’ve always wanted to give painting or macramé a try.
Buying paintings fits with that as well. But also, I’ve heard from people on Facebook who just feel that it’s hopeful and inspiring to them that I’m persevering with my daily painting and carrying on with what I was doing throughout the pandemic, which has been destructive to so many other lifestyles. A lot of people feel good about supporting something against the odds: a 60-year-old single woman making a living as a painter in this day. Very unusual.