On Art and Activism: Sue Coe Talks to Lauren Peterson

Sue Coe, The Animals Vegan Manifesto
Sue Coe, cover for The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto, 2016; woodcut on cream Kitikata paper, 19 by 17¼ inches. Published by OR Books, 2016.

Sue Coe is an artist and activist who since the 1980s has created political drawings, paintings, and prints that expose social injustices. Her subject matter includes the AIDS epidemic, apartheid, and animal rights. Coe’s work reminds us that it is of utmost importance for us all to confront and fully witness the world around us. Detached from the typical contemporary art hustle, Coe’s democratizing approach to her own artistic process parallels her mission as an activist. There is sense of stark honesty present in the often haunting imagery of the less palatable capitalistic practices. Her most recent series of prints and accompanying book of woodcuts titled The Animals’ Vegan Manifesto is currently on view at the Ernest G. Welch Gallery at Georgia State University, one of many print exhibitions taking place as part of the SGCI Conference taking place March 15-18 [click here for info]. A British artist living in upstate New York, Coe will be honored with the Southern Graphics Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award on March 15. I had the opportunity to ask Coe a few questions about her history as an artist and activist and how she sees us moving forward from our current state of political unrest.

Lauren Peterson: Did you become an activist or an artist first? Or do you feel like you took on the roles simultaneously?

Sue Coe: I always knew I wanted to be an artist. I started as a child drawing with chalk on sidewalks. My parents were naturally worried about this potential future of poverty. They stressed that they were not going to support me when I left school and that I had to get a “real job.” So, my dream was to get a job in commercial art and earn a living. I became a social-political editorial artist working for newspapers and magazines. My first jobs were for the London Times and Time Out. It took time to merge the political content and the form, to get the balance right. Because  there were so few women artists in political art back in the day, I had nothing to lose by doing exactly what I wanted. No one was going to give me permission to do political work, so I gave myself permission. I have always believed that the artistic technique has to meet a high standard. If one uses it only as a container or conveyor of political issues, someone can disagree with the content, but still be convinced by the form. There must be a level of trust between the viewer and the artist.

LP: What would be your advice to an inexperienced activist and how do you think activism and the role of the activist artist has changed?

SC: In a sense, everyone is an inexperienced activist because we don’t know for sure what works. We are going against the grain, the dominant class, and we have to play it by ear—how to resist the Trump regime for example. Whether you are 19 or 90, you don’t know what works until you try. Just showing up works and trying works, but social conditions change people’s reactions and perspectives all of the time There is no set formula. It’s the opposite of capitalism. In capitalism, the formula is to exploit everyone and use everything as chattel property to make a profit. The role of “the Artivist” hasn’t changed; the history of art is full of resistance. We don’t know if an image works until we put it out there and see what happens. Activism works when there is a community of support, when we realize we are not isolated. Animal rights activists can feel very isolated even within their friend groups and families. Once we have a level of awareness and see what others are indifferent to, it can be very isolating. A book or a painting can become solace—can be a best friend.

Sue Coe, The Animals Vegan Manifesto
Sue Coe, Boiling Lobsters, 2016; woodcut on cream Rives paper, 11 by 10 inches, from The Animals Vegan Manifesto.

LP: I feel like it takes a very particular type of person that has a great amount of empathy and compassion combined with a massive amount of strength to do the work you do. How much of what you observe do you feel you absorb into yourself? What is your strategy for confronting and processing the tragedies you record?

SC: You are very kind, but I would suggest something a little different. Don’t confuse the art with the artist. Throughout  art history, there have been artists who were  total selfish assholes but made brilliant, compassionate work. The woodcuts of Gauguin are an example. Brilliant. He was no prize as a human, especially to women and girls. My gallery [Galerie St. Etienne in New York] represents mainly dead artists—dead as doornails. They prefer the dead ones, but they still have me, alive!  I can deal with the reality because art is a therapy of sorts and gives me a way of processing the scenes of cruelty and a way to re-traumatize/educate others who cannot gain access to slaughterhouses or prisons. I can’t deal with indifference, especially in myself.  

There are a few things I have witnessed that I cannot process, and they are the living ghosts in my mind that make me very sad when they pop up once or twice a day. They exist as fuel for continuing on. What can I do better to honor those deaths?  

LP: Can you talk about the differences between your process of observational drawing in the slaughterhouse or farm versus working in your studio? Do you typically engage in conversation with the people working during your visits?

SC: Yes, I always have conversations as I am drawing, and it’s all transparent. When staff can see what I am doing, they don’t feel as wary. There are two forces in my work: reportage and propaganda. Reportage is what I have directly seen, and propaganda is propagating ideas about change. Sometimes they mix and mingle depending on context. Being a witness without power is essential. People don’t want to bear witness because they feel helpless to change anything. Showing up with a pencil and paper is the start of change. Too much propaganda implies an arrogance with all the answers. Too little propaganda means one is neutral.

LP: I read an interview you did with Sunuara Taylor in which you compare the practices of drawing and painting. I am curious then where printmaking comes in. When did you first discover printmaking? How do you decide what becomes a print and what does printmaking satisfy in you?

SC: My friend who was a cab driver took a course in printmaking for a week and he suggested I make my drawings into prints. He would take me along in the back of the cab to draw night scenes in NYC. He still makes my prints though he refuses to do registration for color, he has put his foot down. The first etchings he did for me, he accidentally left the plate in an acid bath all day for a deep etch, and it melted the bath and seeped through the floor. It was like the Alien movies. It was lucky he came home when he did (he lived in a 5th floor walk up)Hah! Funnily enough, woodcuts are my least sophisticated efforts. I have no advanced skill and yet they have become the most effective in communicating the content. I cringe showing those woodcuts—cringe, cringe—but it turns out that no one notices they are bad  (real printmakers might!). Printmaking before for me was always a matter of replicating the drawings in etching or litho. It was secondary until I discovered  woodcutting,  which could not, to my frustration, come close to the drawing process. The carving of wood or lino took me over—I had no idea what it would look like. I did a few and they were terrible. Did a few more … ditto. Did more, and they were OK. The cab driver printer did not appreciate the woodcut direction, as it meant he could not run uneven wood through the press and has to use a wooden door handle. He complains and gets agitated. He likes the lino because he can put it through the press.

Sue Coe, The Animals Vegan Manifesto
Sue Coe, Pigs Wear Cat Masks, 2016; woodcut on cream Rives paper, approx. 11 by 10 inches, from The Animals Vegan Manifesto.

Then my publisher [OR Books] asked me to do a book with no words. On a whim, I decided the book would be all woodcuts. I looked at Posada, Kollwitz, Munakata, and my friend Eric Avery—all the geniuses of the woodcut techniques and felt despair after doing ten images. But I agreed to do this, and carried on trying. Woodcut is back to front, so the positive and negative are opposite. It’s hard! It’s like inventing a new puzzle language only using potatoes.

LP: Among your many, well-deserved awards, you are receiving the Southern Graphics Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award. How has printmaking influenced your drawing and painting or practice in general?

SC: I dunno about well deserved… Printmaking is my way of selling affordable political art. When I go into a gallery and see the art, there is nothing I could ever afford—they don’t even have a measly postcard. I wanted to change that, so prints can be used as fundraisers for various nonprofits and can be given as presents to activists, and be not so precious. Kollwitz prints were in nearly every home in Germany before the fascists took over. My gallery represents Kollwitz, and my prints are in the homes of animal rights activists, where they belong and are beloved. [continued…]

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