Thursday, May 15, 2008 An Interview with Sue Coe

By Rachel Crowley, age 16

Sue Coe is a well-known artist who uses her talent to expose cruelty and injustice in the world. Her graphic works have earned her some criticism, but they are celebrated for their honesty by her fellow activists. She is very involved in the animal rights cause, working closely with the Farm Sanctuary.

I first encountered Coe's work in her book Dead Meat (Four Walls, Eight Windows, New York, 1996), available through the Farm Sanctuary and The Graphic Witness sites. Not only is she a talented artist, but she is also a gifted author, accompanying her illustrations with written accounts of her visits inside the meat industry. The book is a touching witness to the suffering hidden from view.

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to get to know more about my personal hero.

Rachel: Where did you grow up and where do you live now?

Sue Coe: I grew up in London, then in the the back of our house was a pig factory farm, and up the street was a slaughter house. Now, I live on top of a mountain, in upstate NY, in a little cabin with solar power.

Do you share your home with any companion animals?

Sue Coe: Well, there are the 'chosen' companion animals…the ones that chose me, and the wildlife. I think they share their home with me. It's their world, and I just live in it. The companion animals are...two pit bull dogs, one rat, four cats...all these animals were abandoned, and now have a lifetime home with me. Trying to get into my bed at night is not easy; the pit bulls get the best spot. As for the wildlife, there is a mother bear with two cubs, many deer, wild turkey, skunks, possums, raccoons, snakes, frogs, bald headed eagles, many mice, and all types of birds, and squirrels.

What is your life philosophy?

Sue Coe: It would be simple, to always put the interests of the animals first. So in everything I do, I try and remember's simple to write, but not so easy to do. Also, to not respond to violence and hatred (ignorance) with rage and equal hatred, but with compassion - this is also not so easy to do!

Do you have any personal heroes or people who inspire you?

Sue Coe: I am most inspired by Gene and Lorri Bauston, the founders of Farm Sanctuary. They are living Gandhis…
and a Buddhist monk/activist from Vietnam called Thich Nhat Hanh. And the animal rights philosophers, Tom Regan and Peter Singer. And an animal rights activist in Australia called Patty Mark. And nearly everyone I meet in the animal rights movement. And my sister...Mandy Coe, who is an activist poet.

What kind of artistic training have you had?

Sue Coe: I went to the Royal College of Art, but have been working as an illustrator/artist, since age 17, so I guess I have learned by doing.

Do you have any current projects you're working on?

Sue Coe: I am working on a series about live transport; how animals suffer when they are transported across the oceans to end up, after their cruise, in a slaughter house. So many of these things are concealed from the public, and my aim is to expose the cruelty.

Besides animals, what are the other major themes in your work?

Sue Coe: War, violence and the biggest weapon of mass destruction: poverty. Many times, the theme finds me. One of my friends works as a doctor in an AIDS hospice, so he invited me to draw there.

Art imitates life and you certainly have a talent for portraying innocent suffering. Where do you think this gift comes from?

Sue Coe: Dunno. I suppose it's because I cannot let go of the idea that billions of animals are dying, being slaughtered, suffering beyond belief, so people can eat their my work is telling them, putting it in front of them, so I am not the witness to it much of this suffering is needless, manmade disasters, like the meat industry. Unlike famines, or earthquakes, or viruses...we need not invent any more suffering; enough exists already. So I think, as it is manmade, it can be unmade...changed, and art can play a role in that change.

When did you first begin to use your art to speak out against social injustice? What was the reaction? Are reactions any different today?

Sue Coe: When I started as an illustrator, I met with a lot of censorship from the media about what I thought were worthy issues. This is because newspapers and magazines do not want editorial work to conflict too starkly with the advertising. Advertisements are telling us that all we have to do is to consume stuff to be happy. So, even though the article I was illustrating had direct political content, the editors did not want too strong artwork. This was a contradiction to me, so I started to produce and publish my own work and became my own editor. The reaction was very positive. People want to see different viewpoints and they want to see reality. They want a dialogue about issues. When art tells a story or when it is figurative, it opens up a debate. Then people can think for themselves and not be told what to think by corporations.

When did you become involved in the animal rights/welfare cause?

Sue Coe: Very early on...I met a woman in the UK who was an animal rights activist. She wanted me to illustrate an album cover about vivisection as I had done some work around that issue. At the time, I wore leather, ate meat etc. It was a cold winter day and she had on a thin cotton coat. I said "You mean you don't wear wool?!" She said, "No." Then I said, "If you don't eat meat or cheese or milk, what do you eat???" She explained she was a vegan. I wanted to dismiss her as an extremist; some kind of lunatic, but I thought about it and figured out that she was consistent and consistency is truth. Then animal rights became a mission in art...and I met [the people of] Farm Sanctuary and have worked with them for the past 15 years. The last two have been on the Board. We have a three-pronged approach: rescue, education, and legislation.

Are you encouraged by the ever-growing number of teen and young adults going veg? Do you have any advice for them?

Sue Coe: Yes, I am encouraged and humbled that they discovered that peace starts on the plate much earlier than I made this discovery. There is so much that we do not have control of and this is the one thing we can do to prevent enormous violence and suffering. This consciousness goes across race, gender or economic background, so it unifies people globally. As for advice...think I can share this: people who eat meat can be adversarial, arguing sometimes endlessly, picking you apart like an object...when what they are actually doing, is learning from you. It's a weird way to learn and seems disrespectful sometimes, but if, with patience and that compassion element, you respond without anger, they do listen. Someone said, "You have to hear the truth ten times, before you change." My other advice is to visit all the animals at Farm Sanctuary and see what you have saved by not eating them.

-- Rachel is a junior in high school, vegetarian since 6th grade and vegan since Nov. 2000.
Her favorite thing about being veg is "being healthy and being able to see the real beauty of creation."

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This interview in Russian / это интервью на русском языке

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