I make vegans,” says Sue Coe, the British American artist widely known since the 1980s for her sociopolitical drawings and prints. She recently published her third book on the meat industry, Cruel: Bearing Witness to Animal Exploitation (OR Books), filled with haunting and empathic illustrations of gaunt, terrified animals being herded to their factory-line deaths and dismembered by downtrodden workers. (Some of these pictures appeared in her show at New York’s Galerie St. Etienne last spring.)
Coe’s images are informed by the history of British caricature as well as by political art from the 1930s and ’40s, particularly that of Käthe Kollwitz. Some are straightforward reportage sketched directly from life in slaughterhouses and on farms. Others are more overt propaganda, such as the drawing of a fat-cat industrialist holding bloody moneybags atop a heap of animal carcasses.
In her accompanying essays, Coe equates the mass killing of animals to the inhumanity of concentration camps and doesn’t draw a distinction between slaughterhouse production and the organic trend of raising free-range animals for food. “Everything to do with breeding animals just to kill them has to go,” she says. “I’m not the vegan police, but I would just hope this book would put people on that journey because we do not need to eat animals to be healthy and well.”
Coe, who lives in upstate New York and sees animal exploitation on farms all around her, grew up in the 1950s in the suburbs of London, adjacent to a hog factory farm and slaughterhouse. She remembers it was guarded and lit up 24 hours a day, and she was terrified of the hog screams and clanging sounds at night. “My parents regarded any questioning about it as childlike. They just said, ‘This is how food is produced,’” says Coe. “It informed me as a child that adults are in denial most of the time.”
Her first stroke of social activism was freeing a tank of guinea pigs and mice that were going to be experimented on in science class. “We had a liberation club, where we all brought food and shared pocket money to feed the creatures, which we kept in garden sheds in secret areas,” she recalls. “That was the beginning of really identifying with other animals. We realized we can do this as a group, and we saw the results. We saved the animals.”