"When we make things, we find our associates and allies. We find our communities, and everything that comes along with that, including the power to resist and reasons for actual joy."
I found Jean's Smith's music when I was a teenager turning into a young woman identifying with feminism. That was more than 20 years ago! Flash forward to myself last year when I came across a video on Jean Smith’s Vimeo page and I discovered her amazing paintings! I hadn’t seen anything like her work before. My admiration for Jean Smith was rekindled!
Jean Smith is a Vancouver-based painter, writer and singer whose band Mecca Normal is regarded as an inspiration to the 1990s social movement known as Riot Grrrl. Her contemporary portraits, based on photographs, are about complex emotions related to feminism and anti-capitalism. She sells the 11 x 14" series for $100 USD on Facebook, making her work accessible to artists, musicians and writers she's met along the way. Sales above her monthly expenses go towards opening the Free Artist Residency for Progressive Social Change off the west coast of Canada. Jean is a published novelist and a two-time recipient of Canada Council for the Arts awards.
I am happy to share this interview with you. I was honored when Jean agreed to let me interview her. Please read on and while you're at it pick yourself up a portrait or two! Not only will you be supporting Jean but you will be helping her achieve her goal of starting an artist residency!
Jes: What’s your lifestyle like as an artist? How would you describe your daily routine?
Jean: I get up around 5:30 AM and I aim to begin painting by 8:00 every morning. This usually happens. I paint until around 11:00, photograph the finished painting, and post it on Facebook. I sell up to 30 paintings a month, so there is a lot of packaging involved. Groceries, cooking, walking, on the phone with my elderly father (93), hatching plans on the phone with my friend, artist David Lester. I'm not anti-social, but, at this point in my life (60), I'm not that interested in going out to events at night.
When did you start painting portraits? Why portraits? Who are the people you paint?
I started painting self-portraits in 1973 when I was 13. Both my parents were painters, but neither painted people at all. My dad was an art director for an ad agency who sometimes hired models for various campaigns, so I had both a curiosity and a kind of inside vantage point of how women are used to sell coffee or whatever. I studied my own face in the mirror and painted myself in a way that ran contrary to the perfection and abject beauty of models. From then on, I attempted to paint at least one self-portrait a year, but I didn't really show people until I was invited to exhibit laser copies of my teenage self-portraits in the Ladyfest art show in Olympia, Washington in 2000. In a way I'm just picking up where I left off.
I use photos I find online as a reference. It doesn't matter who it is because it's not really a painting of them. I look for strong faces photographed in light that defines specific features from perspectives I prefer. I do screengrabs if I see something while I'm watching a film.
I'm more interested in painting emotions rather than features, but the emotions aren't necessarily in the photo. I keep painting until all the elements work together. I have a good sense of knowing when to stop – although, it's not fool-proof. I've definitely painted beyond when I should have stopped and regretted it.
Whenever I do specific likenesses (usually a request) I end up in a quagmire of allowing their feelings about the person enter into my awareness. It's a long time to stand there wondering how they feel about their nose or their chin or whatever. It's just not that interesting. I'd rather be thinking about what works in the painting. I suppose it's like the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. Once you develop skills for telling a good story, sticking to the facts is kind of boring.
I hate the point in when I'm forced to sacrifice a great bit of painting to push it more towards looking like a specific person. I'm way more interested in what I discover as I'm working – how every element affects every other element – watching this happen, changing things, compensating elsewhere. Extreme looking! Elements being: composition, color, perspective, light, style (bits of realism plunked into abstraction), features on the face – nose, mouth, eyes primarily – and the overarching awareness that personality is more important than beauty.
You have been raising funds through your portrait making to start an artist residency. Can you tell me more about this project? How do we buy a portrait to support you?
I'll be opening the Free Artist Residency for Progressive Social Change in 2020. I had hoped to buy a place outright, but now I'm considering a mortgage situation because the location I want to be in is more expensive than simply buying the crappiest house in the province outright. There is very good reason to be on one of the gulf islands off the west coast of Canada. Basically, it will be for artists in any discipline who are working on projects that intend to change the world. I need space for the writer's cabin. Soundproofed rehearsal studio. Painting studio. Accommodations, etc. I'm getting very close now! I'll be the owner and it will be legally bequeathed to an activist art group yet to be named.
When I realized I was making more money than I needed, I decided to bring my Facebook audience into the process, making them aware that first, the paintings are both very good and very cheap, and, at this point, only available from me. They want to see the residency program realized. Many of them will want to come and stay there.
All sales above my $1000 USD monthly expenses go towards buying property and opening the facility. I post totals throughout the month saying how much has been raised. Lately I've been selling between 20 and 30 paintings a month, so I've been able to set aside between $1000 and $2000 a month added to family money that has come to me, keeping in mind that my parents lived in a mobile home park.
I don't want to feel like I've accepted donations from people who then have expectations about any of this. Supporters at this point are basically buying a painting and I'm telling them where the money will go. I'm a bit surprised that there hasn't been any kind of infusion of funds or offers of assistance for the project. People seem to want it to happen, but only one person (Steve) officially donated $100 USD on an IndieGoGo campaign I ran. Granted, I was steering people away from using the campaign platform to avoid fees, and there definitely were escalated sales at that time, but that was my big push and it fell flat. But hey, I set up the parameters for how funds are to be raised, and people are buying paintings; it's just that I'm at a point now where I want to get on with opening the facility. Plus, I have 300 paintings in stock. That's $30,000 USD I could really use right now. So I'll put it out there: I need $100,000 USD to purchase a facility that can be up and running before the snow flies. I have 35 years worth of intense cultural activism, a high percentage of follow through on projects I start, and public accountability regarding my intentions and integrity. I don't want to piddle along for another two years raising funds when I could be operating a facility for artists to come and stay for free on an amazing island in Canada by October, 2019. Philanthropists, ahoy!
Back to Steve. The guy who donated the $100 USD. He was inspired by the potential. He equated it to a specific person he admired who helped individuals fleeing persecution during World War II. As a gesture of gratitude to Steve, I sent him a painting I wasn't going to sell that I knew he liked. He made a great video of himself opening the package before he went to the Bikini Kill show in LA! The world needs more Steves! Send me your Steves!
(View the video of Steve opening the artwork here.)
I know other people get it. I know everyone has their own dream and there isn't a bunch of money around for the arts, but I also want to challenge how land is usually bought and held by individuals. I want to be in a position to extend what I have enjoyed about the community I've been in for 35 years. When we make things, we find our associates and allies. We find our communities, and everything that comes along with that, including the power to resist and reasons for actual joy.
Almost a year ago the apartment building where I've enjoyed low rent for 25 years was put up for sale. I won't be able to pay the going rate for another rental situation in Vancouver, and, with my painting taking off, I need more space. I don't actually want to leave Vancouver. I was born here, my friends are here, my band is here, my elderly father is here (I keep an eye on him), so it's weird to be pushed out, but I can see myself living on one of the islands. A certain number of musicians I know – and a recording engineer we've worked with – live on the one I'm looking at, but basically cannot afford a place. I ripped over there a week or so ago to look at a single-wide mobile on a sloped lot with very little usable land. The agent believed it would sell for more than listed price, which was already a lot more than I have. Like $40,000 USD more. I ripped back home and painted up a storm, but I could use some help painting myself out of this corner. I'm open to various ideas for financial structuring, while being protective of the fact that I need to paint and sell my work. I can't get swept into anything too complicated.
I imagine other political artists will be pushed out of where they are (in one way or another) and I want to have a place available for those situations, so it isn't exclusively a time away from chaotic life to focus on work. I will be able to offer a place for various circumstances within a very broad community of political artists.
I don't have a partner or kids, so I'm inventing my role within my artistic community in a tangible and useful way. It's like with my paintings; people frequently tell me to increase the price form $100 USD (11 x 14") but I really like being able to put good art into the hands of people who don't normally see themselves as buyers of art. The vast majority of my buyers are women (usually in their 40s and 50s) and the faces I paint are almost all female or ambiguous. As an older woman, the freedom I allow myself in painting and the experiences I've had are there, in the painting. I've had a lifetime of expression writing novels and singing on 13 albums with my great collaborator David Lester on guitar.
I post paintings first on Facebook, so people can friend me there (and tell me they saw this interview) or email me directly after looking at paintings currently available on my artist website.
Jean Smith FaceBook page:
Jean Smith Painter website:
What resources have supported you as an artist?
Receiving two grants from the Canada Council for the Arts to write two different novels was extremely important to me. It gave me time and confidence.
Because I'm a known person in indie music and resistance culture, I have a certain amount of reach in place. I get a lot of support from individuals who tell me that my work has been meaningful to them over the years. I'm not much on joining existing groups.
For me, social media has been the way forward. I keep up on it as it occurs, from Friendster to MySpace – and now Facebook, etc. I've made websites and hundreds of videos (YouTube and Vimeo), so I had everything I needed to get my paintings in front of people. What I didn't know was how much people would like them and want to buy faces of non-specific people. Total surprise! The first one I posted sold immediately and then I had someone offering to pay me in advance for the next one! That's where the series started. With a painting of my guitar player's wife in a big black hat. I didn't think it looked enough like her, so I didn't show it to them. I liked it as a stand-alone painting, but I thought the hat also had a lot to do with its appeal, so I painted women in hats for a long time. It was a big deal for me to move on to the "No Hat" series, but no there have been about 625 of those along with a bunch of other sub series like scuba divers, pioneers of aviation, astronauts, headphones, etc.
For the 10 or so years prior to painting being my focus, I was writing novels (two are about online dating) and I frequently wrote about and posted stories about dates, jobs and family. So, I inadvertently built up an audience that way. Friends of the band, cultural activists – people I've met along the way. I was writing in the early morning then going to various joe jobs (a gym for women, retail) that paid my bills while I waited for my agent to sell one of my manuscripts (still waiting!). I had a really awful boss in a store situation, but when I quit I had some trouble finding anything suitable, so one day, out of desperation, I posted on Facebook that I was going to paint every day (actually, I think I said I'd do 5 paintings a day) and sell them for $100 USD. That was January 2016 and I'm still on track.
You have explored a variety of themes through your art, such as politics, gender, patriarchy, and dating. What kind of topics have you been attracted to exploring right now?
Well, at 60, when it comes to themes, I'm not really exploring, per se. I'm always interested in creating political art that functions as direct action, but that's a tough mandate. I don't have much truck with party politics, but I have created paintings about women's rights, Water Defenders at Standing Rock, Pussy Riot and several other fairly literal approaches, but my forte is more nuanced work and I consider the work I have done in music and elsewhere carries over as information that can be applied to my painting. Because I have a strong background in song lyrics (both the very direct and the oblique and ambiguous), and novels (with both political and more nuanced plots and characters), I recognize that I can't control how my paintings are regarded. I don't like to be overly literal. If I use text in a piece it's usually not integral to any meaning viewers may want to impose on the work – like, for instance, if I put the word 'hotel' on a painting of an attractive woman, it doesn't mean she's a sex worker, but those are features that the viewer must regard and grapple with, or not. If I put the word 'pool' in a painting of an attractive woman wearing a bathing cap, it doesn't follow that we can assume her out-of-frame body is one way or the other, in a bikini. These are ways to nudge a viewer towards considering what isn't 'said' in the painting. Likewise, with gender. Probably best not to assume faces with visible make-up are women. My Facebook audience is very savvy. I've painted a good many trans models and many more where I feel the features are more male, but there is almost always some kind of mask. It was funny the other night when a friend PM'd me wanting to buy the 'three with the masks' and I was thinking: they all have masks. She meant the astronauts, but it made me realize how much paint itself is a mask as I apply it to create features and emotions, altering the masks until it resonates as finished.
I don't tend to use the titles in a clever way or as clarification. I know that's very popular right now – and as a writer it seems like a natural fit to be calling feminine paintings "Robert" or whatever – but it's just too easy to flip the script and lose the ambiguity. Then it starts to feel like a gimmick. Then I'm the person painting men dressed as women, when what I want to achieve is a more spontaneous acceptance of other qualities than the instantaneous gravitation to identifying which of two genders a person in a painting is. For god's sake… does a painting have to have a gender?
You practice in multiple mediums. Does your music, writing, short filmmaking, and painting influence each other?
Absolutely! The longer I paint, the more I've become aware that it is an extension of building characters in novels. And, of course, I have a long history of extracting sections form novels and turning them into song lyrics.
How have your experiences as a touring musician impacted or influenced your visual art?
Being in a band that tours impacts all of my creativity. Playing live in front of an audience is such a luxury. Creating art in this way, when you can feel how it's affecting people right there instructive and it imposes an accountability that doesn't exist in the same way in art forms created in solitude. A live event requires that you consider the temperament of the audience, at the very least.
The way I've set up my painting empire has some of that performance energy. Sometimes when I finish a painting I can't wait to post it! To get a reaction to it! Sometimes it sells right away and other times it might be slow to get 'likes', but all of this has to be processed in the same way a performance in front of an audience needs to be processed. There are so many unknowable variables as to why songs and paintings might not connect with an audience in any kind of live setting like a club or on Facebook. There has to be a certain acknowledgement of that unknowableness.
In both arenas it's great to be able to read an audience and make changes as necessary. With painting, I can feel people waiting to see what I do next. I never like to do any sort of replica of the most popular ones, but I do spontaneously delve into series that stop and start and may or may not be particularly successful, which I try not to let impact what I do next. I was recently doing a series called Sun Hats, painting the shadow on the face under the brim of big straw hat. They weren't really getting a lot of reaction, but I wanted to keep painting it. Some months later, someone came along and bought 3 of them, but overall, I think having been in a band that set out to change the world rather than entertain people set me up really well to conduct a business where I'm not derailed by people's reaction or lack of reaction.
When I started the "Affirmative" series of astronauts, people were snapping those up and I did end up doing maybe 30 of them because I was really enjoying painting the helmet, but I will also admit that it was a thrill to have them sell as soon as they were posted and because the image was a deviation from my regular work, I felt I could keep going for as long as there was interest in astronauts. So, that was something almost like commercial art, I felt, but it was interesting to see this sort of intensity for a particular painting and so, I wanted to see how it was going to pan out without me limiting supply.
There are currently still a few of them available. Eventually the fervor died down and now they're just in with the other paintings available. I guess it was something that was generated within the confines of my Facebook audience, something that I'm actually not trying to re-create. I'm not looking for the next "Affirmative" in the same way that I don't want to increase my prices just because that's what's supposed to happen. Also, even if I doubled the price, they'd still be way too low.
I'm really interested in the idea that the people who were early supporters find that they eventually have something worth much more than they paid for it, which is likely to happen whether or not I raise my prices. I've had so many incredible experiences in music that I'm not really looking to get the same thrill by being in a gallery. I know my work is good. I prefer making unique situations viable in D-I-Y economies. That's more of a thrill to me. I'm not saying I won't go with a gallery at some point and move along to some other enterprise, either much larger paintings or maybe running the artist residency will replace painting and that will be fine. For the last 3 years, I've been alone in this room an awful lot. It works for me, but there are other things to do in life.
It's likely that something will change and there won't be $100 USD paintings posted almost every day. Cripes… there are over 300 in stock. That alone could eat away at my self-worth. All these great paintings and because my audience is basically limited to my Facebook friends, they pick and choose and let 10 good ones go by, before a few sell. Some days that alone is really annoying. At $100 USD I figure they should all sell immediately, but it has always been about half. Actually, it has just recently increased to about a third remaining in stock.
It's interesting that there are fewer sales around the end and beginning of the month as people pay bills and also Christmas has been slow because I guess $100 USD is a bit expensive if you have a lot of gifts to buy, but really, these are damn good paintings and at some point, something will make them too expensive for the people who are currently have fairly exclusive access to them. In May, I sold 20 to an interior designer who is now selling them in her store, but I don't know for how much. That's fine with me. I can be regarded as a wholesaler. I'm both an artist and an entrepreneur. There's creativity in both areas. I figure the situation is in a state of flux. I just want to keep painting and paying my bills, but the whole thing has turned out to be way more than that.
What’s one question you wish someone would ask you?
Interviewer: "Jean, you're funny, smart, and sexy as all get out – how is it possible that you're single?"
Jean: "Why you narrow-minded little twit! I oughta… !!! Wait… what?"
Do you have a question for me, Jean? You can ask me anything!
I love the painting you bought. It was one that was supposed to be a specific likeness. A fellow wanted a painting of his partner who is quite strikingly beautiful. I told him I wasn't taking commissions, but I gave it a try without him knowing it. I went over and over the features trying to get it to look like her, but, along the way, some fantastic things happened and I just couldn't bring myself to lose them, so it ended up looking a bit like her, but in a very unflattering way. I didn't show him because it would have been too weird. I posted it on Facebook and he may have seen something of her in it. She might have seen it and wondered if I had some beef with her. I wondered (and worried) about how they might see it.
My questions: Do you as a buyer want to know the painting's history in this way? Is it of any interest? Would you prefer not to know it? Does knowing the back-story change how you see it – in either a positive or negative way? Did you suspect there was any particular drama associated with the painting? Does it show?
Oh, are you aware of the Jealous Curator's blog? She's from here, so I'm wondering if she's known beyond my scope. At one point in 2017, when my sales dropped off, I emailed her a bit of a pitch and hoped she'd eventually read it and maybe consider posting my paintings on her blog. Well, she wrote back immediately saying she loved them and she featured them a day or so after and my sales wentthrough the roof. Many of those people have since bought second and third paintings.
So those are two questions, but I realize they are more about me than about you, and I guess that's because I'm focusing on answering questions about myself. In a more normal dynamic, I'd be asking you about your work and the history of the blog and… everything else.
Yeah, it would be great if we could have done this interview face to face, Jean! I have been doing interviews like this for a long time. I started to do them when I was the Festival Director at Altered Esthetics. I wanted to help promote and feature the artists I was working with. I realized over time that I liked to do them generally because I like to learn about other people, especially other creatives…their processes and how they manage their careers. I hope one day that I can do these interviews more conversationally, either in person or over the phone…one day!
I have heard of the Jealous Curator. The blog and Danielle Krysa are well known here in the United States. I own a few of Danielle's books and have loved her podcast Art for Your Ear. I do know she has presented here in the Twin Cities a couple of times. I even signed up for an event she was supposed to do at the Minneapolis Institute of Art but it got cancelled. It’s exciting that you were featured on her blog!
As for the art I bought of yours, I am interested in knowing the back story. I am actually surprised there is so much of a background on the one I got. I had known that you generally work from images or photographs and that the images weren’t necessarily of particular people… I had been looking at quite a few to buy (I am sure I will be getting another at some point!) and I kept coming back to the one I selected. I think it was her dark hair and eyes...and her indirectness. I feel like the character was caught mid-sentence or looks like she wondering about something. It's very dramatic! I love it and it hangs in my living room!
Thanks for answering all of my questions, Jean! I really appreciate it!
All images courtesy of the artist.
If you have never heard of the Jealous Curator, check out the blog here.
Artists I Admire is a series of interviews with artists I think highly of.