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Artist to Artist: Sue Coe & Zoe Kolln

Artists Sue Coe & Zoe Kolln

Web Feature sponsor VegOut Seattle

Originally published in Driftwood Issue Three which we bring together two artists working from different parts of the world. In this issue, English artist and illustrator Sue Coe chats with Olympia, Washington, artist and tattooer Zoe Kolln. Both artists use printmaking and illustration as a means to spread awareness and engage with issues ranging from veganism to social justice and human rights.

ZK: How did you get started painting, printmaking, and illustrating? Have you always identified as an artist?

SC: Yes, always identified as an artist and socialist, since I could think. I’ve worked as an illustrator since age 17. At 19, I was illustrating Watergate for the London Times, and then went over to the New York Times at age 20. UK art schools were highly competitive, and I alerted myself to the appalling reality that there was another student who was better than me at the Royal College. I vowed to beat him in how many magazine and newspaper jobs we could get. It was fun, as I won. He was very very good—a naturally better artist than me—but he didn’t have the heart. How about you, Zoe?

ZK: Yes, I’ve also always identified as an artist. I’ve been making since before I can remember, and I especially started to hone my interests in illustration once I was about 8. I got started because I was so intrigued and inspired by all the art around me in my schools, in books, movies, entertainment. As far as painting and illustrating, I have been doing both for a long time, since I was very little. Printmaking, on the other hand, since it is a much more intensive craft, I began much later in my artistic exploration. I started working in serigraphy when I was in high school, but then got into college and did much more printmaking. I am now skilled in woodcut, linocut, serigraphy, and intaglio processes.

SC: Back in the day, women were not encouraged to be painters or printmakers. The category alotted for us was illustration, as it was assumed we would breed and therefore be interested in children’s books. My first job was at a Mars Bar factory in England, at age 15, and I would draw workers’ portraits in the lunch break. One of them said to me I could go to art school for free. So I found the forms to apply, filled them out, lied about my age, and gained entry into the wonderful world of art school. It was a magical world to me. We drew all day. None of the teachers were women.The male teachers told me it was a waste of money educating females, as they got married and had children, ignoring the obvious: that they were married with children. How do you think it’s different today for a younger artist, as regards the education you are receiving?

ZK: That’s very ironic that your professors didn’t realize their contradictions and double standards for their treatment of women. I would say from my experience I am far less discriminated against in school than what you described. I don’t go to an art-specific college; I go to a liberal arts school to study art at The Evergreen State College. It certainly wasn’t hard to get in; however, I don’t know about in art-specific universities. We’ll see once I go to grad school. I would be curious to know how many other women were attending the school with you, and I would also be curious to speak with other women artists born in the ’50s about how their experiences were getting into and attending college. In my art classes, I have found we always have a lovely mix of female, queer, and male-identifying folks, so I never feel outnumbered or isolated as a woman. However, there are places on campus that have presences of being “old boys’ clubs,” such as some shops on campus. What makes you attracted to social justice-engaged images? Why do you like making them?

Sue Coe: Queenie Escapes the Slaughterhouse

SC: I have always had the gleeful perversity of wanting to expose what is being denied or ignored. But the engine that drives my work is outrage at the destruction of life for profit—it’s like a looming constant of injustice, something that cannot be ignored. The more I know, the more I can’t unknow. As the majority of my work is for print, it’s hard for editors to deny reality, although they try their hardest. It’s the same with publishing and museums. This is for multiple reasons, usually economic. It’s only when a cultural worker tries imagery linked to social justice that one realizes the massive forces against any truth coming out. This is how we learn. As Rosa Luxemburg said, “those that do not move do not notice their chains.” I could ask you the same, and I do!

ZK: I am also attracted to social justice imagery, because I feel the need to use my passion to expose things I have learned and things I think are worth sharing, regardless of how much people don’t want to see them. I think it drives my work and puts it in an interesting place historically to make images about current and ongoing cultural issues in society. I see it as a way to document, explore, learn, and educate through my work— if my work doesn’t make somebody feel something, anything, then I think it’s time to go back to the drawing board. And ultimately, I think using our experiences as witnesses, we can expose injustice and exploitation no matter where it stands. But more than that, making art about things that are violent, taboo, forbidden, or hidden within our culture is something I have always been interested in. In particular, I always found the paradox between beauty and violence in art to be extraordinary and well worth pondering for a lifetime. As a contemporary artist, how do you feel the art market responds to human injustice and animal rights-related work? Are you able to sell paintings and prints depicting such tragedy?

SC: This would be a book-length response, which we cannot do. To make it short, artists can create their own art world. Collectors and dealers create the art market, and without monetary value attached to art, it cannot be saved; unless a people’s culture is strong enough. I differentiate between People’s Art and Mass Art. What is saved, whether it’s from 500 years ago or now, is what is deemed relevant. There is a world of artists and the world of the marketplace. It makes for a very bad marriage. Censorship as such is rarely necessary, as censorship is primarily economic, and filters out artists who are poor at every stage. Artists closer to the heel of the boot are going to make art depicting their reality, which is not appreciated by the wealthy art buyer. So those artists are going to have to go feral. A social justice movement creates a social justice culture. The art and the struggle go together—eventually this embraces different classes, and what was marginalized and rejected becomes acceptable and supported. For example, in terms of animal rights, the social justice forces influence a judge and jury hearing an animal cruelty case, and may feel it warrants a serious response. Same with an art collector or museum that is touched by the animals plight. If animals are trivialized, then so is the art, and the artist. Until the animal rights movement spreads to levels of society that wield power, the animal rights philosophy is denied. But denial doesn’t imply people are silenced. Animals still make themselves visible by escaping slaughterhouses and zoos, and activists still try and rescue them. This is the same with any social justice movement; everything starts at the grassroots and migrates upward or, as we prefer, downward. I don’t personally sell my own work—I would be rubbish at it and give it away—but a gallery does sell my work because it fits in organically with the history of art they represent, which is mostly German and Austrian Expressionism. Kathe Kollwitz and so forth. I have used my prints as fundraisers many times, as it’s something a working person can afford, and the money goes to where it is needed.

Zoe Kolln: "TeachPeace" stick-poke tattoo

ZK: What inspires and influences your work? Many of your drawings/paintings are created from life, is that your main source of reference material when creating images?

SC: Yes, I do forensic research. I’ve worked for enough newspapers and magazines to understand this is critical for a mass audience. I call it visual reportage. After doing around 10,000 illustrations for various publications, I got a level of freedom from certain magazines to do a few series that were entirely images, and then moved over to writing my own books, expanding on the six- or eight-page theme. Many times, we think we have enough images to fill a book, and many times we don’t. We don’t know until we start. A book usually takes me around three years; it’s a big commitment. I have given up editorial illustration. [One of my] very large painting[s] came from a smaller drawing commissioned for a magazine depicting a very notorious rape case. The painting takes more liberties than the reality, but its inception was journalism. For the animal work, for the Aids work, for the prison work, it was imperative that I gained access to slaughterhouses, hospitals, and prisons. Because we can’t snap our fingers and magically appear to start drawing in a highly guarded place, my work overlaps as to when I gain access, and stacks up over the years. One year I may get in somewhere and do sketches but not finished works. Getting the access is the hardest part. I have sketchbooks of two subjects that will be used down the road. In the past, artists were fully employed making reportage type of work. Please look at examples of this magazine, Graphic Witness, amongst many. They did an entire issue on Vivisection, one on Homelessness, one on The Death Penalty—and this was in early 1900s. This is where you would be employed as printmaker artist. Since these don’t exist now, we make our own. I sense from your work that you want to work in a series and address themes. Is this an artistic impulse for your own curiosity, or the desire to show people what they are not seeing? Your work interests me because it’s a rare balance of visually interesting art and content. Do you feel something you have directly witnessed makes for better art, rather than something you researched online, or learned second-hand?

ZK: Yes, I do tend to work in series. Part of that is because I feel the need to explore similar ideas in different ways; it helps my thinking, learning, and artistic practice to feel more rich and rewarding. I also tend to do artistic research to accompany my work, so since I have something driving the work I am making, it is easy to want to make more than one piece about the same thing. I also like the idea of repetition—it’s so ingrained in our everyday lives, and for me that means repetition is also ingrained in my art practice. I tend to feel the need to repeat ideas also for my audience, whoever they are. I understand things better when I repeat them. As a viewer looking at other people’s work, I also understand them more if I see their work repeated. I think anyone who bears witness to cruelty in person can become changed from it—whether it’s from witnessing cruelty to nonhuman animals or abuse toward other people. I do think, though, that second-hand research can still help us to empathize, understand, and care for others’ struggles. You seem to use a mixture of graphite,charcoal, and gouache or other paints in many of your illustrations. How do you find the media work together, and what do you like about using media in a mixed way like this?

Sue Coe: Me in a Slaughterhouse

SC: I use graphite because when I started working, newspapers and magazines were predominantly printed in black and white 150-dot screens; very crude for newsprint. There was no digital technology, and the work had to be very contrasty or it wouldn’t carry the message. It’s no longer necessary to work with that technique, but I prefer the urgency and immediacy of black and white.

ZK: As a woman/female-identifying artist, have you struggled with finding and making your place in this male-dominated art industry as a woman? Has the art market/canon changed its attitude about representation of women artists at all since the beginning of your career?

SC: No, I struggle with researching and making good art with strong content; content which is undeniable. It’s not my job to provide ease of acceptance. I am the nicotine, not the nicotine delivery system. Art directors and publishers don’t care about gender, they care that you can deliver up the work within the deadline. If they are professional and smart, they can get edgy work through the system. A good merchant can sell anything: plastic shoe, or social, political art. The gallery that represents me says they don’t deal in “sofa art.” If the situation looks impossible, it just makes it so much more interesting to overcome. The market is dominated by capitalism, and as sexism, racism, and speciesism are systemic within the capitalist system, it certainly provides a barrier to anyone with integrity to run a gallery, magazine, or book publishing company. I have the belief that art finds its own path. That could be naïve, but it’s worked so far.

ZK: Do you have any projects in the works right now? What do you see yourself focusing on most in the next years in your career?

SC: Yes, I have a book deadline, and it’s something very different as it depicts a vegan world and is more positive imagery than I am used to. Given the choice between the crucifixion and the resurrection, artists suck at the resurrection part, as it’s a fantasy. They go wobbly and silly. When I give art talks to the public and discuss going vegan, and then ask the audience if they are going to go vegan, many say they will. I then ask those that will not go vegan after seeing all my slaughterhouse work: How can I improve my work that will make them go vegan? Of course, there are people to which animals do not matter morally, and there is nothing I can do to convince those people. But to the people who are open to change, how have I failed to convince them? The majority of people care about animals, so why are they eating them?One man answered: “You are showing me all the horror, but you are not showing me what a vegan world looks like.” I thought that was a good answer, and it’s something of a challenge, as there is no vegan world. There is no safe, nonviolent place for animals or humans. So if we can’t even imagine it, except in the realm of consumer choice, how can we make it a reality?

Zoe Kolln: Legislation ≠ Liberation

ZK: How do you cope and deal with making so much art that depicts violence and tragedy? I found myself becoming a bit depressed when making work that had me bearing witness to so much cruelty. I want to continue making work that deals with such intense issues, but I need to find ways to help myself through it and not become so down.

SC: Zoe, as you are a younger artist, you have not accumulated the experience of seeing how your work can change people. You make activist art, as it’s in your nature, but it’s not been activated by being seen by many people. Once it has been, it will give you more of a balance in your life. You will know what works, and why. A great animal rights activist in the world today (and there are many of them) is a person called Lek. She rescues elephants in Asia. She gave the best talk I have ever heard…and I have heard some brilliant talks by activists of all stripes. She said, “If you are an animal rights activist, you will lose. But we shall win in the end.” We can stop breeding animals only to murder them, by refusing to consume their bodies. We are moving out of the education phase of this movement to the next stage. Animals are already in politics, in the form of the meat industrial complex, which buys politicians, but the mass of people are becoming more aware, and they can do one simple act that is so empowering: Go vegan, and step away from the violence. Not everyone is going to become a vegan, but to slow climate change, the world economy will have to move away from animal agriculture. It’s our job to channel despair into change. Artists are the canary in the coal mine. We are compelled to give the warning; that is what culture historically does. However down we feel, it’s not as down as one of the trillions of animals slaughtered every year. We have the responsibility to tell their story, and to make it stop. If you make one vegan through your work, it saves so many animals from being born into a life of torture. And that vegan makes others. Do you think that making art of these terrible scenes can be a therapy of sorts?

ZK: Absolutely, I agree. I remind myself of that always. Every individual animal killed and consumed in one way or another, for clothing, entertainment, meat, dairy, or eggs, is suffering far worse than me making my carvings and drawings—only catching a glimpse of what it is like to actually experience what they go through. The least I can do is share their experiences and hope people take the time to listen to my works. I do think it can be relieving to make work like this. It is almost like because I have made this image, I have purged the experience of another voiceless creature into the public domain. I think once an image is on the white walls of a gallery, things change about its nature, its narrative, and its seriousness—people listen and people think when they are in museums and galleries. You just have to bring them the art, and make it interesting in the only ways you know how. Making work like this also does truly give me hope for the future generations of nonhuman animals, because it reminds me that I am just one of many vegans working to create a better world for animals, the earth, and for other humans. It is a gift, but it can also feel like the weight of the world—changing people isn’t always easy, and I feel for the animals who continuously suffer while they wait for the world to slowly change.

SC: Thanks for the great questions Zoe!

ZK: Sue, thanks so much for doing this piece with me!

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