28 March 2011

Artist and activist Sue Coe provides inspiration at recent lecture

Sue Coe is an English born artist and advocate of animal rights. She has illustrated for Time magazine, and her art has been featured in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She studied at the Royal College of Art in London and moved to New York in 1972. Nowadays she lives in a small cabin in upstate New York that was once a shack that she converted into a solar powered sustainable home, built up from mostly recycled materials. She lives there peacefully with her rescued dogs, but her place of residence was not always one surrounded by beauty and flourishing wildlife. Sue Coe grew up next to a slaughter house.

When I first heard that Sue Coe would be speaking on my campus, East Tennessee State University, I was unfamiliar with her work. Some friends of mine had referred me to the lecture, knowing that the content was right up my alley. After a quick Google search, I was able to view a small sampling of Coe’s work. Many pieces depicted scenes of animal abuse and neglect in factory farming, slaughter houses, circuses, and pretty much anywhere that animal welfare is concerned. She also had pieces and documented social commentary that expressed social injustice on a human scale, such as sweatshops and apartheid. To me, she seemed a true advocate of social justice.

On the day of the lecture, Coe began by telling us about where she lives now and where she came from. Growing up next to a slaughter house, she was not often shielded from the reality of how the meat industry really works. At times she would witness with her own eyes, the truths that so many of us were blind to as children. She recalled an influential event where she once saw a hog attempt to escape from her confinement. The terrified, screaming hog ran for her life. The hog was pursued by a group of men in blood soaked aprons, chasing the hog as if she were an escaped prisoner. We all know what happens when escaped prisoners are captured, they are re-imprisoned. In the case of animal prisoners, the escapee is usually re-captured and killed or publicly executed as we have seen time and time again with escaped circus animals. This memory along with many others, of course led Coe down the path she walks today.

“I saw their breath come out…..and it was their last breath.”

She told us about the gassing of hogs, and the mass shipping of sheep. She described to us how a Hammerhead Shark must actually watch themselves be mutilated as their fins are cut off and then dropped back into the ocean to drown. The story of a sheep so parched after transport, she immediately dropped to the ground after unloading to desperately drink the dirty water and blood of her slaughtered brethren. All of these stories were accompanied with a slide show of her work depicting the scenes she described. Much of her art represents events she has actually witnessed, claiming she was not an animal activist so the facilities would permit her entrance. Coe has been involved with many animal rescue missions with activists from around the world.

I quite enjoyed the lecture and was able to speak with her afterwards, where she was selling prints to raise money for Farm Sanctuary. She was proud of me for being an activist, and even gave me a print at no charge. For some people who attended I am sure they were moved, becoming aware of situations that they did not know exist. Some perhaps were surprised by her abrasiveness, basically calling out all those who do nothing or use their outlet for personal gain rather than activism. At one point during the lecture, I remember her calling out members of the Tea Party, saying they had I.Q.’s of amoebas. I will not put her exact quote due to strong language, but I think you get my drift. There is so much more to her than I am able to put in this short article, and I know it does not do her justice. If you are not familiar with Coe’s work as I was, then I recommend checking it out.

Something she said rang very true to me in my view of the people through my own struggle for social justice. She said in comparative reference, “We are being farmed…Farmed into helplessness...”

Steven Garnett | Facebook | @stevengarnett
Steven is currently pursuing a B.A. in history and women's studies at East Tennessee State University. He is the founder of Vegans and Vegetarians of the Tri-Cities and a student animal rights organization at ETSU. Steven is a vegan, active feminist, and environmentalist. He enjoys film, art, and delicious vegan cuisine and wishes to educate others about oppression, regardless if it's animal oppression or human oppression. Steven's blog.

Photo credit: Steven Garnett