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Vancouver artist ditches part-time job, sells over 1,500 paintings

Mecca Normal's Jean Smith started selling portraits of women’s faces for $100 US apiece; now they’re in high demand.

Mecca Normal's Jean Smith started selling portraits of women’s faces for $100 US; now they’re in high demand

Jean Smith's painting No Hat #937 (11 x 14" acrylic on canvas panel). (Jean Smith)
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Like countless artists, Vancouver musician, visual artist and writer Jean Smith decided she'd had enough of working part-time jobs to support her art.

In the 1980s, Smith co-founded the seminal rock duo Mecca Normal, which is credited with helping to inspire the Riot grrrl and DIY music movements; she's also a novelist and painter.

In 2016, while working at a garden centre, she had an idea: paint every day, and sell the paintings for $100 US apiece. 

As an experiment, Smith put one up for sale on Facebook and it sold almost instantly; then someone else chimed in and said they would pay her upfront for whatever she did next.

Jean Smith's Headphones #39. (Jean Smith)

The project took off, and since its start, she has created and sold more than 1,500 paintings.

At first buyers were mostly people she knew, but as word spread, she developed a wider following, with clients across several continents. Some purchase multiple paintings; one collector has bought more than 250.

As soon as each painting is finished, Smith posts it on her Facebook page, and it usually sells in under an hour — often in less than a minute.

"How could anyone ever imagine this? I grew up in a world where your big dream would be to get in a gallery and somehow you would be known through whatever magic that they could throw together," says Smith in an interview with q host Tom Power.

"But no, nothing like this ever entered my mind."

'They're really about emotion'

The paintings are on canvas panel, which makes them more durable and easy to ship, and almost all of them are portraits of women's faces. They vary widely, and some are part of themed series — Ruff Collar, Pioneers of Aviation, Scuba and Headphones to name a few. But most are aptly titled Hat or No Hat with a number.

What the paintings all have in common, however, is the striking emotion that Smith imbues in her subjects' expressions.

Jean Smith's No Hat #575 (16 x 20″ acrylic on canvas 1/2” profile). (Jean Smith)

"They're not likenesses of anybody in particular. They're faces of primarily women or people with feminine features. And they're really about emotion," says Smith.

"They're not about being a pretty woman, or what the person visually looks like. It's really about their face and what it is revealing to me as the person capturing their emotions."

Not only are most of the subjects women; most of her buyers are as well.

Jean Smith's Ruff Collar #27 (16 x 20″ acrylic on canvas 1/2” profile). (Jean Smith)

"Having a woman paint women is very different than women being the subject of a photographer or the male gaze," says Smith. Smith has long been known as a feminist and women's rights advocate, she adds, so people understand the paintings are anything but objectifying.

"There's a trust there that I'm representing women's emotions as more than anything superficial."

The Free Artist Residency for Progressive Social Change

If you do the math, Smith has pulled in well over $150,000 US from the paintings over the past several years — larger works sell for $600 — but she's not pocketing all of those profits.

Rather, she's putting anything above her extremely modest monthly expenses — just $1,000 US — toward opening what she calls the Free Artist Residency for Progressive Social Change, an artists' residency near the Lower Mainland where people can paint, write, record music and more.

Jean Smith's Nurse #47 (11 x 14" acrylic on canvas panel). (Jean Smith)

"I was looking at a guest house that was for sale up on Denman Island and thinking, 'Gosh, it would be great to be up here and people could just come and utilize the space. One building could be a recording studio, there could be live shows in the café," she remembers.

"And I decided that the money I made above $1,000 US I would set aside for the artist residency."

The "progressive social change" part, she explains, means the centre will be for artists who set out to change the world through their work, in the same way Mecca Normal set out to do in the '80s.

'It energizes the whole project'

Of course many businesspeople would point out that, if Smith raised her rates, she could get to that goal much more quickly. So if her paintings are in such high demand, and selling in mere minutes, why doesn't she boost her prices?

Artist Jean Smith working in the studio corner of her East Vancouver apartment. Smith has sold more than 500 paintings since March alone. (Jean Smith)

Smith says at first, the $100 price tag was a relatively arbitrary decision. But once she realized how grateful people with limited means were to be able to buy quality art, she decided to keep the price where it is.

"It's a continuation of Fugazi shows being $5, or Beat Happening always playing all-ages shows. And those were things to ponder: Why would they do that? Why wouldn't they put their prices up? Why wouldn't they want a bigger audience and play for other people? Well, those are political decisions to create art for the accessibility aspect," says Smith.

"It energizes the whole project. I get to paint every day."

Smith creates as many as three or four paintings a day, then puts them on Facebook where her followers react — and if they're really lucky, land a painting.

"It's got a real performative aspect to it, like doing a show where you definitely, as a performer, get a lot out of the audience reaction, whether they're smiling or whether they're nodding. They're giving you feedback that is then fuel," she says. "This is very similar."

Since COVID-19 hit, Smith's sales have skyrocketed, with the artist selling more than 500 paintings since March — 91 in July alone. So what is it about pandemic living that has collectors clambering?

Jean Smith with Mecca Normal co-founder David Lester. (Jean Smith)

"I think it was a good place to put attention, and it became something that you can order online. We were not going anywhere, especially in the beginning, and it's something you can put in the environment you're in. So those are some of the specific variables," says Smith, who says prospective buyers are best to connect with her on Facebook. (She also posts images to Instagram, but by the time she does, the paintings are usually sold.)

"And it's become a good thing. It's a good story. People are happy that it's working for me, that I'm a success at this — and in such dark times, to grab on to something that's powerful and has a purpose."


Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Interview produced by Danielle Grogan.

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