Articles/ Interviews


Full transcript of an interview between Jane Lewis and Mary Holmes for Animal Culture Magazine. An edited version was published in the magazine under the heading DO YOU HEAR HER? in March 2023.
ACM: You’ve been a working artist for four decades, and apparently came to animal rights around 2015, after viewing the documentary Earthlings. Would it be fair to say that you have always been a political artist?

JL: I’ve practised as an artist for something like four and a half decades now. I was fortunate that an agent became interested in my work during my final year as a post-graduate student in London, and so I began exhibiting in small galleries straight away.
I was one of those people who became vegan overnight because Earthlings had such an impact. In fact I had to watch it in two parts, over two evenings, because I was so distraught that I cried all the way through. I’d lived my entire life without knowledge, or perhaps in denial, of the atrocities routinely inflicted on other living beings by humans. I began watching the documentary on YouTube in all innocence, having vaguely heard that it was a documentary about animals, but unaware of its real content.
I wouldn’t say that my work has always been political. There is a definite vein of feminism in my early work, when I was first finding my voice as an artist. The imagery was pretty anti-men, and often featured blood-spattered castrated cherub-like creatures. I also made images that were erotic but at the same time grotesque and therefore (I hoped) repellent. I was deeply influenced by early 1970s feminist writing – I’m old enough to have read Greer’s The Female Eunuch not long after it was first published, and I avidly read the UK magazine Spare Rib. I later even bought and read The SCUM Manifesto (Society For Cutting Up Men) by Valerie Solanas. That was my radical feminist phase, when I produced work full of anger and satire.
I worked a lot in etching, and liked the acid-bitten look of the medium. A couple of years ago, sorting through some of the etchings, I found two images that seem to presage my recent work: one of a pig’s head with sausages dangling from its mouth and another of a cat’s head with electrodes attached. They were meant to be about the grotesquery of creatures pushed to extremes, even though I had no notion of animal rights at the time. Sometimes the true relevance of one’s work comes of age many years later.
By the time I was in my 30s my work had become more lyrical in content and accomplished in technique. I became interested in the tradition of the male gaze in depictions of women, and as a lesbian wondered what I could do with the female-on-female gaze. It is a theme that runs through much of the work of my 30s and 40s. The director of the gallery that represented me at the time commented on one occasion that a painting was ‘too gay’ to sell. As I said though, my work wasn’t and is not exclusively political. There are images about music, carnival, opera, mythology.

ACM: Earlier, you produced feminist art. Has that been incorporated into your more recent work in any way? What kind of parallels do you draw between feminism and animal rights activism, or “artivism?” Talk about the other -isms as they relate to your work.

JL: The most important ism I had to understand and fully absorb on becoming vegan was speciesism. I had to readjust my view of humanity’s supposed precedence. The notion of the inferiority of other animals, indeed of all life on earth, is one that is taken for granted by the majority. I read Eternal Treblinka by Charles Patterson in which the writer says: “Once animal exploitation was institutionalized and accepted as the natural order of things, it opened the door to similar ways of treating other human beings.” His premise is that all exploitation is rooted in animal exploitation which in turn leads to discrimination against women, against LGBTQ people, against people of different appearance or ability, to human slavery and genocide.
And I realized fairly quickly that there is an obvious parallel between the gross exploitation of the female reproductive system in animal agriculture and the denigration of women through sexism. I had to readjust my view of myself as a feminist, a view which should have embraced veganism all along.
My work’s emphasis used to be on the human figure with occasional inclusions of other animals, but now the balance is reversed and humans take a more secondary role. Not long after I became vegan I felt a conflict between the work I continued to produce with imagery I was known for, and the terrible representations of animal suffering I had seen and read about which played like a horror movie in my head. My first animal rights work was a series of 18 drawings entitled Earthlings, directly inspired by the documentary film, which dealt with not only animal agriculture, but the fishing industry, hunting, racing and vivisection. I wanted to portray atrocities in a way that would draw in the reluctant viewer. I tried to give the animal victims a certain dignity and poignancy, while at the same time not disguising the harrowing nature of their suffering. In several drawings, the animal victim looks out of the picture and makes eye contact with the viewer, which is intended to be subtly unnerving. I want my work to touch hidden emotions, and thereby question and change habits and attitudes.
I completed a more recent set of charcoal drawings called Pigs and Butchers specifically to use in a video entitled I See You with the music of Vanquish Evil. I worked on the drawings during lockdown, and there are ironic references to masks and latex gloves alongside the butchery of farmed animals (an ignored source of pandemic viruses). There was so much unnecessary human suffering during that period – mental breakdown, isolation, financial collapse – and yet no move towards creating a better unexploitative world. The carnage of the slaughter houses continued and pharmaceutical companies prospered.
Reading Carol J Adams’s books The Sexual Politics of Meat and The Pornography of Meat resonated with me, and consolidated ideas about the relationship between sexism and speciesism. The preface to her first book, written by vegan-feminist Nellie McKay, also introduced me to McKay’s wonderful music.

ACM: What determines your choice of media to use in a particular piece of art?

JL: I’m a traditionalist in the media I use. I work in oil on canvas, pastel, conte crayon, charcoal, graphite and coloured pencils. The older I get, the more slowly I work; so that when I plan an oil painting I know that I shall invest several months in its realization and that determines the subject – my works in oil are more complex than my works on paper; they have multi-layered narratives with a more distinct mood of the surreal.
I also occasionally work in pastel as a form of painting. I can finish a picture more quickly in pastel and it is possible to approach the complexity of oil painting in the medium; occasionally I make a fully realized study in pastel that is also a finished work in itself.
Much of my animal rights artwork is in drawing because I will have a rush of ideas that I wish to express. I still spend a great deal of time on them, but it doesn’t amount to months on one image. I worked on the Earthlings series, off and on, over a period of two years. The drawings are among my smaller works - they are in ordinary graphite pencil and crayon and each is around A4 in size. The medium lent itself to free invention as I worked and intense detail. When I came to the Pigs and Butchers series I wanted deep rich blacks and smudged tones and so I chose charcoal on paper. The final two drawings of the series are in black pastel pencil and on a smaller scale because by that time every surface in my studio was black with charcoal dust and the clean-up was quite a chore.
I also have sketchbooks full of ideas, many of which may never become finished works.

ACM: What kind of research do you do before undertaking a new project?

JL: I make written lists of ideas first, this is to remind myself later if I haven’t got around to working on image versions. Then I will make simple line and wash drawings in a sketchbook and if it is a painting then I’ll work up a full sized outline drawing called a cartoon.
I research ideas through reading, watching video/film and finding informative photographs. And I observe and draw. Ideas constantly float around in my head – they are always there. I might plan a composition as I lie in bed. I can’t say that dreams have any part in it though.
Although I use them as references, I never simply copy photographs. I don’t see the point, unless they are reinvented. For instance, if I want to depict a rabbit or a pig then I will gather lots of different references and then reinvent from several sources. I sometimes like to work from memory and imagination, that is when I feel most comfortable, when I can work immediately from eye to hand to surface.

ACM: Talk about the influence of surrealism in your art-making.

JL: I was introduced to surrealist art on a school trip to the Tate Gallery in London when I was twelve years old. I was mesmerized by the Dalis and Magrittes in the collection. I later learnt, as an art student, that I should despise them, especially Dali! But a germ of surrealism stayed in my unconscious and by some kind of osmosis worked its way into my own work much later.
I feel that painting should create another world rather than simply reflect what we ordinarily see. I have little interest in pictures that are pretty arrangements of depicted objects or landscapes. I loathe pseudo-impressionist rectangles produced as interior decoration. I want a work of art to speak to the viewer, to challenge and pose questions.
Surrealism embraces contradiction and ambiguity and expresses the relationship one has between conscious thoughts and an inner world of free-floating ideas and imagery. My animal rights work, particularly the paintings, has a surreal edge to it which I hope will at the very least encourage the viewer to pause and wonder. One of my paintings, The Sacrificial Machine, is perhaps at first glance a weird and puzzling fantasy depicting a child with an strange life-size toy which consists of a hen shackled to her own egg which in turn pulls a wheeled human head, its crown cracked open to reveal writhing baby chicks; but it is also more straightforwardly about the exploitation of hens and destruction of day-old chicks in the egg industry. Likewise two other paintings, White Rabbit and Vanitas, work on many levels – the viewer is invited to unravel a surreal composition and find at its heart a plea against vivisection.

ACM: Explain why Jacqueline Morreau’s statement:
“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 … We must work harder than ever to make what gains we can in the consciousness of civilized people” resonates with you.

JL: Jacqueline was a friend and mentor for a number of years. I met her in 1980 when she invited me to take part in a ground-breaking exhibition called Women’s Images of Men which opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London and then toured. Jackie’s own strong and accomplished art was also in the show (it was the first time I’d seen her work) and she was a co-curator. The above quote is extracted from her artist’s statement in the exhibition catalogue. I can’t remember how she discovered my work.
She believed that the personal is political, which she expressed both visually through painting and graphic works and in her eloquent writing. She reimagined mythological themes as contemporary conflicts of oppression.
She died in 2016 at the age of 86, by which time we had lost touch with each other, but I feel sure that Jackie would have agreed that there is now an even stronger necessity than ever to speak through whatever medium is our strength to raise consciousness against exploitation of all living creatures and the environment. We each have only our very short life in which to speak out, be it as visual artists, writers, performers, political activists or protestors; and we each have certain talents and strengths with which to express our deeply held principles . Unfortunately the barbarians seem to be closing in now with greater force than ever.

ACM: What is your vision for the future of the planet and the creatures on it?

JL: My greatest hope is that humanity will shake itself out of its capitalist consumerist trance, sack its psychopathic political leaders and realize that this planet is the only home we have. That we need, with the greatest urgency, to value and take care of what remains of the earth’s eco-systems and the creatures, including ourselves, that depend on them. The burgeoning human population and the farmed animals it feeds on out-number all other life to an obscene degree. Radical changes must be undertaken now, not tomorrow or next year or next decade. I have to admit that I sometimes despair. The exploitation of animals and the environment is consistently ignored by mainstream media here in the UK in favour of sport and the royal family, or a little lip service is paid to environmental issues without any serious discussion of meaningful change.
Not long ago I did a painting entitled Small Creatures. It depicts a standing woman who looks away from the viewer, in the company of insects and other small creatures, including spiders and small reptiles - creatures that are in catastrophic decline due to human activity, in the form of habitat destruction, intensive agriculture, the use of pesticides, urbanization and industrialization, introduced species and climate change. Insects are among the most abundant and diverse species on the planet and play key roles, from aerating the soil to pollination and recycling of nutrients. Their decline is a grave cause for concern. Insects pollinate three quarters of our food crops, as well as being the main food source for many birds, small mammals and fish. The majority of plant species require animal pollination, most of it delivered by insects. Our ability to feed ourselves will be compromised and many of our beloved birds, mammals and other species will simply not survive.
My painting includes extracts from a poem called An August Midnight by Thomas Hardy, written in 1899 when insects and other wildlife were still abundant.

ACM: You seem to be particularly concerned about vivisection. Do you anticipate doing more work depicting agribusiness and factory farming?

JL: I am as horrified by vivisection as any other kind of abuse of animals for human gain or curiosity. I notice that when veganism is mentioned in mainstream media the emphasis is almost invariably on plant-based eating, and the fundamental ethics of being vegan, which of course should include where possible the avoidance of products tested on animals, are overlooked. Ghandi said: “I abhor vivisection with my whole soul. All the scientific discoveries stained with innocent blood count as of no consequence”, and I agree. There is absolutely no excuse; there are now technologies that replace animal testing for toxicity tests, neuroscience and drug development. I have to wonder if researchers who work in vivisection are sadists who actually enjoy the practice of torture, when human tissues, cell cultures, computer models and volunteer studies are better and more compassionate alternatives.
My Pigs and Butchers drawings and my related video I See You are fairly recent projects about farmed animals, and I have a number of ideas, some in sketchbooks and others still gestating, on all aspects of human oppression of animals including vivisection, entertainment, transport and food.

ACM: What would you like to tell our readers that I haven’t touched on?

JL: When my own and other eco-feminist art was shown in the Absent Referent exhibition at The Artists Gallery in Los Angeles last year, I had a long Zoom conversation with Karen Fiorito, fellow artist and curator of the show. We discussed the fact that animal rights art and eco-feminist art is currently seen as too radical and perhaps niche for general acceptance. In my view such art should at its very best be unnerving and yet such images need to be presented to a wider audience – in galleries, in open studios, at festivals, on social media, in publications. So huge kudos to Karen for mounting such an exhibition.
I’ve also shown some of my own AR paintings in the UK and Europe, in two instances in touring exhibitions at public galleries – they shared museum walls with pictures of all kinds and I like to think that they challenged an unsuspecting public. And the Nicholas Treadwell Gallery in Austria will acquire my Earthlings series of 18 drawings as part of the gallery’s permanent collection. This means that they will be available to the public in perpetuity.

Copyright: Animal Culture Magazine/Jane Lewis/March 2023