“It is most interesting to me,” says Cecelia Jean Speckman, “that she always said she was going to be an artist…and she IS an artist!” She’s speaking of her daughter here, in a breathless amazement that could seem typical of any parent talking about any child. The difference here, however, is that the devotion and commitment with which the mother speaks of the daughter is the same with which the daughter speaks of the art. There’s a clarity of expression here, an ability to be plainspoken and truthful that must surely be genetic. Her brother says the same: “Artists are the folks that can see the beauty in anything and translate that through their medium – it’s something that not everyone can do and Vanessa has found a way to do that.”
This article will be a rough sketch, as it has to be: Vanessa Jean Speckman continues to strive, grow, and learn, much more a tree with many branches than a simpler organism growing only in one direction. The lens through which so many have gotten to know Speckman is a musical one, but music is by no means her starting point or her primary inspiration. Through her family, her peers, and her own words you will get to know a woman whose work has inspired so many in this community.
The open admiration of her family members is returned wholly in kind. Vanessa Jean Speckman loves and appreciates where she came from. “I was surrounded with art and makers from my earliest memories, so as early as I can remember, it was ‘the norm’.” A grandfather that regularly painted scenes from National Geographic magazines, parents that took her to see Leonard Cohen, a brother that regularly trekked out to shows with her and helped create a zine that influenced the rest of her life.
The zine was called Lubricated. Speckman was just out of college and had moved in with her older brother Patrick, but was less than thrilled with the lack of community spirit in the Bay Area. “…everyone around me seemed to be straddling what they were, and what they thought we were supposed to be and I saw all this cool stuff in between that I wanted to celebrate. That there didn’t have to be any lines crossed or boxes to be put in.” The zine was about more than music, it was a way of connecting what burned brightest across all mediums: music, visual art, poetry, film. In Patrick’s words, the “common thread was creativity.”
“I was a high school art teacher and 6th and 7th grade English teacher,” Speckman says, “driving to shows every night, painting in my garage and staying up way too late making Lubricated…It was this really organic and beautiful process that took on a life of its own, that I don’t think either of us ever had imagined.”
Lubricated introduced Vanessa to many like-minded people, including Michael Dean Damron of I Can Lick Any Sonofabitch In The House. “I was touring with Two Cow Garage,” Damron said, “and [Speckman] was doing a zine at the time and came down to talk. The next night we all played in San Jose and she gave us a place to crash and some kick ass Mexican food…One of the kindest, warmest people I had ever met.” And just as the music influenced Speckman, her art influenced the artists around her. Speckman painted the cover of Mike D’s recent solo album When The Darkness Come. “…it was the perfect combination of darkness and my childhood,” Damron said. “I related instantly.”
Being more than willing to travel up and down the West Coast for shows, plans not being a necessity (for reference see her painted suitcases: ‘Gotta Run!’, and ‘…Can’t Stay!’), there are plenty of stories like the following. Frank Turner, when asked how he met Speckman, said, “Many years back, on the road, through road friends. We used to stay at her place in Northen California when we were on tour.” Vanessa recently contributed a print that was included with Frank’s compilation album ‘The Third Three Years’. The piece features many of Frank’s standby references and inspirations but in Speckman’s particular style. Lyrics have a habit of sliding out of songs and into reality, tattoos are almost too honest, and most figures are bearing quiet witness to their circumstances, looking out at the audience or down at their feet with similar melancholy self-awareness.
Brandon Barnett of Ghost Shirt, another band Vanessa painted an album cover for, put it as follows: “Vanessa’s art is so direct…She can make you feel all your feelings with 4-5 words spray painted on an old map.” The album cover, featuring a defiant boy (with plenty of tattoos) braving rough seas in a boat also bearing a scythe-wielding Grim Reaper. Barnett: “If the record has a unifying theme it would be something about not looking for well-being, love, or salvation outside yourself. I never told Vanessa this. The first thing I noticed on the art was a little cartoon flag being waved from a boat that just said ‘Save Yourself’. I completely lost it.” Speckman is undoubtedly an artist who understands artists, who creates work not just for artists, but that artists will appreciate.
As previously written, however, there are many branches to Speckman’s artistic life and music is just one of them. Her artistic story has been one of constant change and growth, new mediums and themes emerging as old ones are thoroughly explored. “I don’t ever want to be stuck making the same thing with the same tools – that would be my own personal purgatory,” says Speckman. “I love that I am my own tool in the shed and it’s up to me to learn and develop and stay sharp.” In school she painted with oils and sculpted with clay, and after college she didn’t do much art other than “bastard stubborn photography” and the zine. What soon emerged, though, was a talent for re-purposing or re-imagining existing forms. Maps were a common vehicle for communicating Speckman’s melancholy and wanderlust.
Speckman’s art seems to be about the medium just as much as the message, whether it’s a cheap plastic compass with “nobody at the wheel” on its back or a matchbook with “i just have a lot of feelings” sewn to it. These simple pieces, a common item and a few words, are also some of her strongest. “I don’t think musicians or artist create a piece in hopes to dictate something, rather to spark something,” Speckman says. A keychain tucked into your bag with another purchase, a notebook with the reminder “we’ll never get out alive” pasted to it, a map saying “we don’t need a map”…all of it is easy to see, to understand on a surface level, but there’s also somewhere to go. Her art is a starting point, and often one that starts you off very abruptly.
There’s something refreshing about saying exactly what you’re thinking, and Speckman’s work embraces those hard truths. “I suppose I try to aggressively gain the viewer’s attention right off the bat, but then I hope that it makes them come back to self reflect on it.” Perhaps the most aggressive of her works are the bummer Valentines, vintage love notes that Speckman updates with feelings and thoughts that are just as powerful and present on V-Day as love is.
Other truths, often aggressively vulnerable, come painted onto the t-shirts that Speckman makes. Her “Dear rock’n’roll, you can’t break my heart, XO me” has become a favorite for touring musicians to wear onstage and in music videos. There’s nothing ironic or cynical about the statement: being a musician is hard for a long time before it gets easy, and these are people spitting in the face of adversity to do what they love. This is true for all artists across all mediums, for the ones that refuse to back down from a challenging life. In Speckman’s words: “Art is not a means to an end for me. Art is a means to living for me. The fact that I currently support myself as an artist, is something that does not get lost upon me or is ever unappreciated. But art and art as a career are two different things and I am on the side of the first, not the latter.”
It can’t be easy, constantly creating and making so that you can create and make further, but difficulty doesn’t necessarily come with unpleasantness. One element of Speckman’s life is constant touring, either solo or with her partner Micah Schnabel. While touring is a whirlwind no matter who you are, it’s also slightly different for visual artists than performers. “Did I make enough t-shirts? Did I bring enough variety in my art and in my prices? [There’s] this feeling of incomplete completion upon leaving.” But there’s plenty to enjoy about the life as well. The newness of each town, the unease at not knowing where to get your next cup of coffee and the feeling of having conquered the world when you take your first sip: these are all feelings that Speckman lives for. “There’s too much to do and see to be too comfortable doing the same thing every day.”
Comfort plays a role in her art as well; or rather, the lack thereof. Whether it’s the word ‘FUCK’ emblazoned on a t-shirt, an unapologetic refutation of normal life emblazoned on a map, or a girl holding a Popsicle frozen around a knife out from her crotch, Speckman sets out to make the viewer uneasy. “I like the topical sweetness upon first look,” Speckman says, “and part two hopes to make you uncomfortably comfortable.” All art is the expression of human emotion through some medium, and Speckman’s chosen form of expression is to say what we’re all thinking. In the words of Schnabel, “When you find an artist that makes you think, ‘That’s exactly how I feel! Why didn’t I write that! Why didn’t I think of that!’ it is really something special. It’s challenging and inspiring. Which is what art is all about.”
Everyone in Speckman’s carefully and carelessly drawn/painted/written world is on the same page: the wires are visible, the boom mic is in the shot, there are ordinary cruelties whipping by like storm winds, and her characters stand gazing out at it all. They represent her audience, each of them individually, and this real world is no less cruel. There’s the hope, though, that strength can be drawn from everyone’s own unapologetic observations of the world around them, that maybe honesty of the heart and not just the mouth could get us through all of this. Though the world that Speckman conjures with her words and paints is sometimes bleak, it is never without hope. Like the little boy in the boat, defiantly sailing with Death alongside him, we all have to save ourselves. In the words of one of Speckman’s heroes, the punk rock heroine Patti Smith, “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”