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Public Displays: Mecca Normal make themselves at home

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Jean Smith says she started painting watercolor portraits of herself in 1973, at age 13, as a way of shoring up her self-image against her emotionally abusive parents, who were artists themselves. When she graduated from high school she got a cash grant to attend art school, but rather than enroll in classes, she used the money to buy a bitchin' stereo, then moved into an apartment in a cooler part of Vancouver, her hometown.

She met David Lester in 1981 while both were working in the production department at a Vancouver alternative weekly. The two collaborated on an underground anarchist paper for a few years and then, in 1984, started the minimalist punk band Mecca Normal. Two years later they released their first record, and today, after nine more albums, innumerable tours, and the founding of a publishing company, they're still writing songs about poverty, capitalism, feminism, and relationships between men and women, hoping to inspire other people to cultivate self-worth through art.

Most bands, if they were still playing bars after 18 years, would call it quits, but Smith and Lester enjoy performing in venues where they can make eye contact with people in the audience during the show and talk to them afterward. When Smith--who still lives in Vancouver--called the Empty Bottle in July asking if she could host a six-day salon-type event involving music, art, and "details on how to change the world," owner Bruce Finkelman and talent buyer Peter Toalson both thought it would be a perfect fit for the Bottle Top, a cozy room upstairs from the club. The space has been available only for private parties since it was rehabbed four years ago, but ultimately, says Toalson, "the Bottle Top will be a full-service bar somewhat in contrast to the Empty Bottle downstairs--casually comfortable, intimate, and quiet." Meanwhile, he says, they hope to use the space for movie screenings and the occasional art exhibit, as well as parties.

Smith and Lester got into town on Wednesday, November 6, and their artwork is on display through November 11 free of charge at the Bottle Top. Smith's showing a series of paintings on velvet of a pint glass, as well as some of her self-portraits from the past 30 years; Lester's exhibiting a collection of posters titled "Inspired Agitators." Both artists will be hanging out in the space after 9 PM Friday through Sunday, November 8 through 10, holding informal discussions about the importance of counterculture and staging impromptu concerts. On Monday, November 11, they'll play the Empty Bottle proper. That show starts at 9:30 PM at 1035 N. Western (773-276-3600), and there's an $8 cover. See the Critic's Choice in Section Three for more.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Stafford.

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