Jen Smith is just the kind of woman you might pass in the grocery store and not give a second glance. However, her laundry list of accomplishments may just make you want to do a double-take. Smith is an unassuming powerhouse — the fact that this wispy, gray-haired, Plain Jane is also among the earliest spearheads of 90s-era radical feminism, frontwoman of acclaimed post-punk band, the Quails and pioneer of the “zine” genre is truly a study in contradictions. Smith is a self-proclaimed “weirdo,” and she owns it.
Last Friday, Smith hosted a panel and workshop on the evolution of feminist zines and the “Riot Grrrl” movement at the Orange County Museum of Art. Alongside Onya Hogan-Finlay, her associate in Project Bookmobile, “a travelling zine library on wheels,” Smith is on tour promoting the “Alien She” exhibit, a collection of art inspired by Smith’s punk-feminist Riot Grrrl movement.
Jen Smith was born and raised in Washington D.C., where, like most angsty 14 year-olds, she was inspired to stray from her prim-and-proper roots and join the emerging punk rock scene. At the same time, third-wave feminism was sweeping the 90s, and Smith saw an opportunity. Combining her passions for punk, feminism and community, she got her MFA at the University of California, Irvine and began organizing groups of artists and musicians devoted to the worthy cause of girl power.
Smith didn’t merely invent the phrase “Riot Grrrl,” she was a pioneer in the movement. Riot Grrrl followers initially used punk music as a medium, and eventually popularized “zines” — short for magazines — through their use as propaganda, as they are often handmade, easily reproducible paper volumes.
OCMA itself is an unlikely candidate to house such a colorful collection of archived zines and hardcore urban feminist art — nestled in the heart of Newport’s relatively sterile Fashion Island district, one might expect something a little more bourgeois from the OCMA than “Alien She,” which features mainly pop-art, shocking experimentalism and everything else that does justice to the punk genre. However, museum employee Kelly Bishop insists that “the nature of the museum is simply that of an archival home,” and OCMA certainly serves that purpose.
Its barren polished concrete floors and clinical white walls provide a shocking contrast to the vibrant, saturated artwork in every corner of the building. The sterile nature of the museum makes the installation itself more gritty, more tangible and more empowering.
Patrons milled around the exhibit for a while, soaking in such avant-garde pieces as a hot pink floor-to-ceiling soccer net, a trio of hand-made female sasquatches and an entire wall plastered with feminist zines. Weird, yes, but that’s Jen Smith’s trademark.
Finally, as the guest of honor called everyone together and took the microphone, reverential silence swept the room. The modestly-sized audience, a hodgepodge of culture vultures and eclectic artists, listened intently as Smith and Hogan-Finlay’s exuberant stories filled the gallery.
Fascinated Riot Grrrl devotees sat sketching pictures of Jen and Onya as they spoke, hoping to capture some of their contagious energy on paper.
Smith is almost blasé in her humility surrounding her involvement in third-wave feminism and the birth of the “girl punk” movement. The woman credited with coining the phrase “Riot grrl” flicked a strand of graying hair out of her face as she explained that her role as a champion for gender equality is “just this thing that happened to me in my life. It’s almost incidental.”
“Weirdos always find each other,” she explains. “Weirdos come together. That’s how great ideas are made.”