Advocating for a better world for animals, one art piece at a time: Jane Lewis (UK)

Culture can be used as an instrument for social change. Creative protest, e.g. visual art, poetry and music, can be a very powerful tool. Through creativity one can affirm, but also change preconceptions and role models. Culture has the power to inspire, empower and alter thinking. 

Jane Lewis is a visual artist whose recent work is concerned with animals in the modern world, and its direct relationship to the ongoing destruction of our environment and its sentient inhabitants. Jane invites us to believe that one person, one at a time, can bring about change. 

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Jane, how do you define yourself? 

I’ve been a visual artist for as long as I can remember. I began drawing at two years old when my mother gave me a pencil and paper to play with. It is who I am. The longest period I did not make some kind of artwork was for six months after my mother died.

I always define myself first as a visual artist. I believe that the role of an artist like myself, a painter and draughtswoman, is not simply to produce decorative or pleasingly representational rectangles to adorn an interior. My work has always resonated with meaning, be it personal or political. My current artwork is about animal rights, and I see that as a valid form of activism. I am also committed to taking part in street activism regularly, particularly the Cube of Truth with Anonymous For The Voiceless.

What is veganism for you? 

Veganism is an ethos for living one’s life. In a conversation with a group of friends recently, someone said that it would be ok to be vegan 50% of the time, but I pointed out that it’s only possible to be 50% plant-based not vegan. Veganism is not a menu choice. I’m one of those people who made the decision to be vegan overnight, and my commitment remains just as strong as when I made that decision. The first change was in what I eat, which I found easy; then I had to consider changing toiletries and cleaning products to avoid being complicit in animal testing; and as I replace clothing and household durables I seek out cruelty-free alternatives. My consciousness has been raised about all the hidden use and abuse of animals in people’s everyday lives, which used to include my own, and there are even TV programmes and films I can no longer watch because of the casual abuse of animals that is taken for granted in entertainment.  

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What is feminism for you? 

I grew up with the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, and although certain battles have been won, it saddens me that women must still fight for and assert their equality. I’m old enough to have read Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch when it was first published, and it was amazing at the time to see such radical ideas on the printed page. I also read just about every other women’s rights publication at the time, including the groundbreaking UK magazine Spare Rib. Feminism did not so much change my life as affirm nascent feelings of non-conformity I already had. I knew that I did not want to marry and have children, that I wished live my life as an artist, but I grew up with no such role models, and was even told in my first year at art school that it would be a waste of time for a woman to try to pursue a career in Fine Art. So the feminist movement of the 1970s, which coincided with my going to art school, gave me courage.

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How do you see connection between veganism and feminism?

Veganism is about speciesism, and is a social justice movement, just as feminism is about sexism and is a social justice movement. The animal agriculture industry ruthlessly and cruelly exploits the reproductive systems of female animals, the milk and egg industries being the most obvious examples, where cows and hens have been selectively bred to produce more milk and eggs than their wild counterparts. They endure forced artificial insemination and birth, and subsequent separation from their babies, over and over until they are literally worked to death. 

One of my recent works is called Worked To The Bone, and depicts a skeletal chicken surrounded by eggs. She is literally a skeleton with just a flesh and feathered head and a few feathers for a tail. People who have seen it have remarked that she nevertheless looks very similar to the wasted chickens we see in film footage of egg production farms. Another of my images, from the Earthlings series, shows a partially feathered hen shackled by the ankles to an egg, like a ball and chain.

Other industries also exploit female animals to endlessly produce babies to be raised for food, clothing products, medical research, and “pet” animals (e.g. puppy and kitten mills), etc. This is not to belittle the suffering and death of the males, but the exploitation of female animals is often more protracted and involves greater numbers.

You have said: “I feel that my own work has gone full circle, having begun my career with angry feminist pieces, then moving on to more lyrical personal subjects, and now producing animal rights images.” Can you elaborate on this? 

A turning point in my very early career was in 1980 when I contributed work to a major London exhibition called Women’s Images of Men at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) which was feminist and highly controversial. It was a time when I was finding my own voice as an artist, and the pictures I did then combined feminism with surrealism. They were actually quite anti-men, an example being a series of small paintings I did of bleeding baby eunuchs – although in retrospect they might also be seen as anti-procreation! After that I became obsessed with Italy and its art, and my imagery changed to the more personal while still being somewhat surreal. Now I am producing images about the tragedy of animals in a human-centric world, which does indeed feel like a return to a more controversial artform. Recently I was sorting through pictures I’d forgotten about in a storage unit, and was struck by the prescience to my current work of two etchings I did in the 1980s, one of a pig’s head with sausages dangling from its mouth, and another of a cat’s head with electrodes attached. Sometimes the true relevance of one’s work comes of age many years later.

I like to paint creatures, human and non-human, and sometimes interesting objects. Landscape and abstract have never appealed to me. My emphasis used to be more on the human figure with occasional inclusions of other animals, but now the balance has reversed with humans making the occasional appearance in my work. I became vegan four years ago, and at first continued to paint the same subjects I’d been interested in up to then. But after a while I felt a conflict between that and the terrible images of animal suffering I had seen and read about which played like a movie in my head. The idea for my series entitled Earthlings came directly from my having watched the Earthlings documentary in its entirety (which was the reason I became vegan). The film is a difficult watch, and I wanted to deal with many of the atrocities it depicts in a way that would draw in the reluctant viewer. I try to give the victims a certain dignity and poignancy, while at the same time not disguising the harrowing nature of their suffering. In several of the Earthlings series, the animal victim looks out of the picture and makes eye contact with the viewer, which is intended to be subtly unnerving.

The gallery entitled Animals on my website is actually a compilation of pictures I created separately over a number of years, rather than as a series. There are recent animal rights paintings and drawings, and others that were done before I became vegan, many of which refer obliquely to the strange and sometimes dubious relationship between humans and other animals, for example performing and captive animals.  

I’ve been told that my portrayals of animals are easier to look at than graphic photographs and film footage, or at least at first glance. Viewers of my work often say that it is heartbreaking. Images can be more memorable than words.

Ultimately I want my work to touch hidden emotions, and thereby question and change habits and attitudes.

You have said that “The only gallery I continue to exhibit with is the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery in Vienna, where it is possible to show work that is outside the mainstream.” Can you elaborate on this? Also, how do you see the art world and the creative industry as a vegan (feminist) painter?

I originally exhibited with Nicholas Treadwell as a young artist, when his gallery was in England. He kick-started exposure and sales of my work. Then I moved on to a central London gallery who represented me for 20 years, during a period when my work’s content was less challenging, though still not mainstream. We parted company after they began to ask me to produce more “appealing” images, because my imagery had become more complex and contentious and therefore difficult to sell. I even received a letter from another artist in that gallery’s “stable” encouraging me to take the advice and paint pictures that would sell more easily. At the same time I discovered that another gallery I’d had an equally long relationship with had stopped displaying my work and stashed it in a damp storage space, which damaged some of the pictures. Sadly, the majority of galleries and agents are conservative and prefer artists to work to a formula that sells. Nicholas Treadwell is an exception to the rule, and so I have done another full-circle and returned to showing with his gallery in Vienna.

I think that it is extremely difficult to exhibit as a vegan artist on the traditional gallery circuit. I’d like to be proved wrong though, and want to seek an exhibition opportunity for my new work.

The economic reality for you is also that any profit made from the sale on Redbubble will be donated to Viva!, The Donkey Sanctuary and The Jar Tree (zero-waste shop). Why is charitable giving important for you?

Those are three examples of charities or causes I’ve donated to from the very small profit I make from my Redbubble online shop. I’m often asked if cards and prints are available of my work, and while the profit margins for the artist are small, I find it expedient to have Redbubble take care of the manufacture and shipping of goods. And at the same time I thought it would be a good thing to donate profits to animal charities or zero-waste projects, both causes that are close to my heart. I also allow the reproduction of my animal rights images elsewhere for no fee, as long as it is a not-for-profit or independent low-budget organization. When I turned my attention to the plight of non-human animals in my work, I realized that it would not have commercial appeal, so I chose to work for nothing, which is in itself a kind of charitable giving. My hope is that if people understand I am not doing this for personal gain, they may be more inclined to either buy the reproductions or share the images online to a wider audience.

I am also a member of an international collective of vegan artists called the Art Of Compassion Project, the brainchild of Leigh Sanders, which is non-profit and raises money for various charities through exhibitions and sales of posters, cards and calendars. Leigh will be publishing a book about AOC and its artists later this year, the proceeds from which will go to Veganuary.

Support for charities is important when those organizations and small businesses are working for radical change. 

What are the main ways painters (and other visual artists) can contribute to social impact? 

There are many ways – I know artists who are making posters and teeshirt designs, who are publishing wonderful photographs that document vegan activism or truths about animal agriculture and endangered species; others make videos which are widely seen and therefore influential. Because of my particular background in fine art, it is natural for me to make paintings and drawings, but now as well as exhibiting in galleries or opening my studio (which I’ve done recently on a couple of occasions), I find that my work has the greatest impact on the internet, and my aim is to reach thousands of people internationally with images that question and provoke. I often say this – that I want to draw the viewer into my images by their apparent fineness of execution, then deliver a blow with the content.

Can you name the best methods of non-violent struggle?

By example, the way one lives.  

Through education and sharing information. 

By uncovering and showing the truth. 

Civil disobedience may also be necessary.  

Tobias Leenaert, a long-time speaker, trainer and strategist, and the author of How to Create a Vegan World: a Pragmatic Approach (Lantern Press, 2017) has said: “In this world where there is so much suffering, it’s hard to do enough. Doing your best is maybe never really your best, because you can always do better. We can spend more money on good causes, and watch less Netflix, and help more.” Can you say something about that?

I haven’t yet read Leenaert’s book, but it is now on my must-read list.

I believe there has to be a vegan (and zero-waste) future, or life as we know it will cease to exist. Humanity has reached a state of extreme decadence and destructiveness. We have all been complicit at some point. I often speak to people when I’m with AV, or doing other forms of activism, or just with friends, who are afraid of the enormity of the struggle we face, who say that just one person cannot have an impact, that they don’t have time, enough money, etc. There are any number of excuses. But I tell them that one person, one at a time, can bring about change. That’s how it works. 

What vegans, creative activists, painters, etc would you say have influenced you the most, and why?

I was inspired by the gritty, political and satirical imagery of Grosz, Goya and Hogarth earlier in my career, and their influence continues. Their ability to confront, shock, amuse and undermine is phenomenal, and I like the often bizarre imagery and juxtapositions they use to convey uneasy or unpleasant truths.

Paula Rego, whose work is profoundly feminist, in my view is one of the greatest living painters. She deals with both the personal and political in her work, and has remained remarkably honest and true to herself through her long career.

There are many vegan/feminist activists, writers and visual artists that I admire, though whether they have a direct influence on my work I can’t always say. I soak up images and words all the time, and they are filtered by a kind of creative osmosis.

I have a high regard for and am very moved by the visual work of photographer Jo-Anne McArthur and graphic artist Sue Coe. Their example is inspirational and motivating, and I am in awe of their ability to come face to face with human atrocities against other animals and record it with an unflinching eye. Coincidentally, although we don’t know each other, Sue Coe was a co-exhibitor in the Women’s Images of Men show I mentioned above. I did though meet the artist Jacqueline Morreau (1929–2016) when she curated and participated in that exhibition – she was an important feminist painter, draughtswoman and printmaker, with a wonderfully soft and self-deprecating personality. She was instrumental in giving my early work exposure and support, and she became a personal friend for a number of years. Jacqueline said: “We have only a small space of time in which to make our marks on paper and canvas, to effect permanent changes in society before the barbarians once more close in. Soon the nagging concern may be mere survival. We must work harder than ever to make what gains we can in the consciousness of civilized people.”

I am impressed by the work of Sandra Higgins who founded Eden Farmed Animal Sanctuary in Ireland and master-minds the Go Vegan World advertising campaign in the UK and Ireland. Sandra speaks, writes and uses imagery with insight and intellect, and is a formidable contributor in media debates about veganism and animal rights. The feminist vegan writer Carol J. Adams is another formidable voice for animal rights and women. I came late to her book The Sexual Politics of Meat, and regret not reading it when it was first published. Her thesis of why meat is seen as a male prerogative goes some way to explain the preponderance of women in the vegan movement. I attended her lecture at the London VegFest last year. Another speaker at the festival was Clare Mann, who wrote the book Vystopia – she is a vegan psychologist whose ideas about how to speak to and influence non-vegans are inspiring, perceptive and pragmatic. Often when I mention these three women to other vegans, both male and female, I am struck by the fact that they are largely not known. It is apparent that, despite the higher proportion of women in the movement, the male activists become the media stars, as in general life.  

Finally and crucially, the documentary film Earthlings has had the most influence, not only in changing my ethics and the way I live, but also the way I work and my role as an artist.


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