Jean Smith on Political Art

From my post on my regular FaceBook page

Political art. I sometimes think my work [paintings] should be more political. Political in a more overt way.


Jean Smith self-portrait age 13 (1973)

I started painting portraits (in my room) at the very loaded age of 13. I looked in the mirror and made translations that flew in the face of what models in magazines looked like. My dad, by this point, was no longer an ad agency art director. He was painting large abstracts and watercolor landscapes, and doing freelance commercial art jobs in his studio in the back yard. My mom (an art school graduate) was painting still life from nature in her studio. Neither of them painted portraits at that time.

Fast forward to a point in the early 00s when I took 11 x 17″ laser copies of those teenage self-portraits on tour and put them up at Mecca Normal shows. There was a night at the Smell in LA where I could see them, my teenage faces, from the stage while I was singing songs from The Family Swan album. Songs about my family in those years. I realized (while I was singing) that I had inadvertently found a way to talk to my teenage self, to offer an adult perspective (mine) to her.

In current times, between the deaths of my parents, (with my dad losing his marbles and the difficult nature of being around while this happens, trying to help him and protect my own marbles etc.) it seems like painting faces (and all the historic energy involved here) is prit near the best thing I can be doing. It’s political in the way that finding something that works, something that’s right, fairly early in life is political (self-expression) and then returning to it years later for some of the same reasons is political.

Comment on the post:
I think of pretty much everything I’ve ever seen you do as being political. Maybe the portraits aren’t specifically “political” in content, but the motivation behind them – $100 paintings to avoid having a day job and to work towards a free artist residency program sure is! The art and music and writing and living are all congruent expressions of your political integrity. Or to paraphrase Godard: …not to make “political” films, but to make films politically.” – Steve Peters, the Chapel Performance Space at the Good Shepherd Center, home to the Wayward Music Series, Seattle

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A Mecca Normal Primer

At some point, K Records staffer Dirk Kinsey wrote about us, but I’m not sure where or for what purpose.

Mecca Normal stands as one of my favorite bands, K or otherwise. In putting together a playlist, I kept coming back to them, to the point it made more since to just indulge in my role as chooser and go 100% Mecca Normal. For those of you that are unfamiliar with these seminal northwest anarchists, consider it a primer. I’ve tried to include both classics and some relatively deep cuts. Jean and David have tapped into a thing you would be hard pressed to replicate. The simplicity of guitar and vocals, the kinetic power of the performance, the fact that these two are coming into their THIRD decade of working together, blows me away every time. Often times, Mecca Normal will come up in conversation amongst musicians I know and a seriousness will take over, heads nodding gravely, a mix of reverence, fascination, maybe a little intimidation. “Waiting for Rudy”, “Are You Hungry Joe?”, “I Walk Alone” remain as politically relevant now as they were 25 years ago. The older I get and the better I understand how much it takes to survive your youth with ideals intact, the more these songs mean to me. Strident, unflinching, topical, the Mecca Normal vibe is not the most easily digested. But beyond the initial challenge, you’ll be rewarded with music that has a grace, depth and razor sharp edge.

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October 14 in MN history

wow hallDavid Lester’s FaceBook post today

“30 years ago today, Mecca Normal had one of our most stamina-busting days on tour: 733 miles, two gigs, 4 cities, one day!!!! Mecca Normal woke up in Berkeley after playing the Gilman Street Project the night before. Breakfast with our friend DJ Laura Moody (KALX) and Calvin (K Records). Hitching a ride, Calvin shares driving duties with Jean heading north. First stop is Eugene, OR where we open the show for Vomit Launch at the WOW Hall. Right after the set we pack up and leave by a side door where Calvin has the car ready to go. Drive on to Portland, where we do a closing set at the Blue Gallery with Some Velvet Sidewalk. Pack up and then we drive on to Olympia, entering the city just as the sun is rising. I’m not sure if we actually had any food that day, aside from breakfast, but somehow it was all incredibly exciting.”

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“I Walk Alone” at Tobi Vail’s 50th birthday

Erin Smith’s snippet of video from July, 2019 “MECCA NORMAL doing I WALK ALONE at Tobi Vail’s birthday party!! SO beautiful and perfect and intense to be able to see you do this at this time in this town with all of the people in the audience you have influenced so deeply. You were the first band I ever saw play Olympia in 1989, at Reko Muse Gallery with Tobi Vail and @mskathleenhanna in the audience along with me. THANK YOU MECCA NORMAL!! THANK YOU Jean Smith!!! This weekend has been nothing short of INCREDIBLE!!”


The Kenyon Review



In 2016, I attended a weeknight concert at the Showbox in Downtown Seattle that got me thinking about walking as a political act. The headliner that night was riot grrrl Kathleen Hanna’s new band The Julie Ruin, which had just released its second full-length album, Hit Reset. One of the opening acts was the Vancouver-based band Mecca Normal, a two-person indie band formed by lead singer Jean Smith and guitarist David Lester. One of the songs Mecca Normal performed that night was “I Walk Alone.” It stood out to me because, partway through the song, Smith put down the microphone, stomped off stage, and continued singing (shouting), repeating “And I walk and I walk and I walk and I walk and I walk” over and over as she marched through the crowd.

This went on for a minute, maybe two. As she sang, I understood how dangerous it was for me to have come down to the theatre alone, how vulnerable I was—how vulnerable we both were as women in a crowd. I understood, too, how important it was to reclaim my right to walk around, to proclaim defiantly (despite the danger) that I existed and that I deserved to be able to move safely in the world. This lesson stuck with me long after Mecca Normal left the stage and the show floor. Though the highlight of the night was of course seeing Kathleen Hanna perform “Rebel Girl” live, I’ll never forget Jean Smith’s performance.

I repeated her lyrics in my head as I walked home alone that night.

In high school, I learned that repetition is one of the most effective rhetorical devices. We use it in music to create catchy jingles, in commercials to enhance brand recognition, in speeches political and otherwise to sway our audiences to our side. Consider Mark Antony’s speech in the play Julius Caesar: how through repetition the statement “Brutus is an honorable man” becomes a question that undercuts his authority and turns the Roman people against him. How in the 1953 film adaptation Marlon Brando’s Mark Antony turns from the Roman mob, pausing, calculating, his expression one of manipulative ambition as he waits for the exact moment to turn around and capture the audience again.

This, my teachers said, is the power of repetition. It’s the same device that Martin Luther King, Jr., uses in the oft-taught “I Have a Dream” speech, wherein he repeats the famous phrase eight times in a row not to call into question the meaning of the word “dream” (as Mark Antony does with “honorable”) but to emphasize the grandeur and the beauty of that dream, as well as the monumental work required to achieve it. In King’s speech, the “dream” becomes a kind of cathedral in which the audience prays for a better, more equitable, more just future.

But there is something else Martin Luther King, Jr., does with repetition: he shows us the reality from which his dream has sprung. When he tells us of his dream that one day his children will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” he illuminates a painful reality for African Americans and other people of color in the United States: that, in the eyes of white people and for all levels of government, what you look like is more important than who you are or what you do. This is still the case now, over fifty years since Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination.

Today, African American poets and writers such as Claudia Rankine and Morgan Parker use repetition in similar ways to shine a light on their (and, by extension, our) political reality. In “Now More than Ever,” Morgan Parker talks about how “the most politically liberal but socially comfortable of Whites” repeat the title phrase as if there is something particularly dire about this moment, as if there has been a drastic change requiring White attention; Parker then systemically dismantles this lie, illustrating how this diminishes African Americans, reducing all the richness of their experience to the singular, flattened “life of the Negro,” which they seem doomed to live “now, and ever and ever and ever and ever” into eternity.

When I saw Parker perform “Now More than Ever” at the Hugo House in Seattle this past April, the repetition of “and ever” continued for several minutes. Finally, Parker, done explaining things for the predominantly white Seattle audience, stood up, left the stage, and walked out of the theatre, still repeating that phrase (“and ever and ever”), even as the door clicked shut behind her. We sat for a long moment, wondering if she would return, and then the lights switched on and the reading was over. Unlike Jean Smith, Parker did not return to the microphone to perform one last piece or say goodbye or break down the equipment. She had made her point, and as I gathered my things the words echoing in my head made the point for her again and again and again.


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“Radicals Rendered in Pencil”

New illustrations by David Lester! Something he did while taking a little down time from the two graphic novels he’s working on.


Abbie Hoffman (November 30, 1936 – April 12, 1989), American political and social activist, anarchist, and co-founder of the Youth International Party (Yippies).


Frank Little (1878 – August 1, 1917), American labor leader who was murdered in Butte, Montana. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, organizing miners, lumberjacks, and oil field workers. He was a member of the union’s Executive Board when he was lynched.


Eugene V. Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926), American socialist, political activist, trade unionist, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World. He ran as the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1920, receiving nearly a million votes.


Martha Gruening (1889–1937), American writer, political agitator and civil rights activist. She wrote and edited The Dawn, a pacifist magazine, and was arrested for “disorderly conduct” after distributing pacifist literature. She served as the assistant secretary to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She moved to France and continued to advocate for the rights of African-American men and women until her death.

Shulamith Firestone (January 7, 1945 – August 28, 2012), Canadian-American radical feminist. A central figure in the early development of radical feminism and second-wave feminism. In 1970, Firestone wrote The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution.


Fred Mooney (January 23, 1888 – February 24, 1952), one of the most radical leaders of the United Mine Workers of America (District 17). He was involved with The Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest armed labor uprising in U.S. history. The conflict occurred in Logan County, West Virginia, as part of the Coal Wars, a series of early-20th-century labor disputes in Appalachia. Up to 100 people were killed.


Ben Fletcher (1890 – 1949), member of the Industrial Workers of the World–Philadelphia longshoremen branch (Local 8). He helped lead Local 8, the largest, most powerful, and longest lasting interracial union of the World War I era. Because of a union work stoppage in 1918, Fletcher was charged with treasonous activities. He was convicted, fined $30,000 and sentenced to ten years in Leavenworth federal penitentiary in Kansas.

Simone Segouin (October 3, 1925 – ), French Resistance fighter, at age 18, served in the Francs-Tireurs et Partisans group. Among her first acts of resistance was stealing a bicycle from a German military administrator, which she then used to help carry messages. She went on to take part in large-scale or otherwise perilous missions, such as capturing German troops, derailing trains, and blowing up bridges.

Robert Minor (1884 – 1952), American political cartoonist whose early work appeared in The Masses and Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth.

Unidentified Italian anti-fascist during World War Two. After the war, about 35,000 Italian women were recognized as partisan combatants.

Ralph Chaplin (1887–1961), American writer, artist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World. He designed the anarcho-syndicalist image, Sabo, the black cat (a symbol of wildcat strikes and radical unionism). Chaplin wrote the words for the union anthem, “Solidarity Forever”. He is buried at Calvary Cemetery in South Tacoma.

Mollie Stimer (November 21, 1897 – July 23, 1980), anarchist and activist who fought as a trade unionist, an anti-war activist and a free-speech campaigner. Arrested in 1918 for printing and distributing leaflets denouncing the U.S. military action in Russia, she was convicted under the Sedition Act and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Close friend of Emma Goldman.

Lucy Parsons (1853 – March 7, 1942), American labor organizer, radical socialist and anarcho-communist. She is remembered as a powerful orator. She was married to Albert Parsons, who was executed in 1887 as a Haymarket Martyr. In 1905, she was a co-founder of the Industrial Workers of the World.



Man Thinks Woman

Snippet of “Man Thinks Woman” at Tobi’s birthday


early photos

MN, 1993, photo by Jon Snyder

photo by Jon Snyder, 1993

MN, Hamburg, Germany, 1994, photo by Moni Kellermann

photo by Moni Kellerman, Hamburg, Germany 1994

MN, photo by Jeff Bagato, Mole Magazine

photo by Jeff Bagato, Mole Magazine

MN, Vera, Groningen, Holland, 1995

photo by Snorkel, Vera Project, Holland, 1995

first show

first show photo by Ian Smith, Vancouver 1984

first show s

first show photo by Ian Smith, Vancouver 1984