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Living simply and devoting herself to her career, 'visual journalist' Sue Coe has spent decades taking a stand on social problems through her controversial work. She hopes that her images make people reflect about issues and perhaps take action for change.
By SUSAN VAUGHN, Special to The Times
A prominent critic once called British-born artist Sue Coe "the greatest living practitioner of confrontational, revolutionary art."
Coe, 50, creates artwork that isn't easily forgotten. That's her goal. She's spent decades depicting cruelties and foibles--not to shock but to educate, influence and, she hopes, inspire change.
Her subject matter is ugly: war, rape, homelessness, hunger, AIDS, apartheid and animal abuse. But her images often are hauntingly beautiful.
She may sketch a violent scene so viewers want to turn away but remain fixated on the horror before them. If Coe has done her job, they also reflect upon the issue she's presented.
"When I started, I thought, 'Oh, it won't change a thing.' But then I realized I could empower people with it," she said. "I think the best that can happen is that you open up a dialogue. I believe most people are open-minded."
Coe built her unique career through determination, sacrifice and devotion to her art. She sees herself not merely as a reproducer of images but as a "visual journalist," a muckraker in the tradition of Upton Sinclair, author of "The Jungle," the compelling indictment of America's early 20th century meatpacking industry.
She is not scared to take unpopular stances on issues or create art that might provoke anger and offense.
"There are people obviously who think that art shouldn't be that powerful or moving," said Jane Kallir, co-director of the Galerie St. Etienne in New York, who has represented Coe for the last 10 years.
"They believe it should be pretty or fancy, and they definitely wouldn't be Sue Coe fans."
Coe said her greatest inspiration is Rembrandt. She keeps a copy of his drawing "The Garroted Woman" on her drawing board. The image of a woman facing death by hanging motivates her not only to perfect her technical artistry but also to develop an "at-one-ness" with her subjects. "The compassion he has for this girl cannot be denied," she said. "He has removed his whole ego, every artifice about himself from the work, and the girl is speaking to us. If I can achieve 1% of what he has done, I'll be grateful."
Coe's early years set the stage for her career. Born in Tamworth, England, to working-class parents, she was doing sidewalk drawing by age 5 and developing a fascination with art.
Though her parents expected her to become a clerk-typist or work in a factory, Coe decided she would take her chances as an artist.
"My mother was really angry," she said. "She told me, 'If you think you're going to live off us for the next three years, you've got another thing coming.' But I said, 'Don't worry, Mum, I won't live here.' "
Coe enrolled in the Chelsea School of Art and later the Royal College of Art and studied illustration and commercial art. But she believed her job prospects would be severely limited. Colleagues in her field told her that women artists were hired only to illustrate children's books.
Coe created a portfolio anyway and continued to hone her art techniques. Her talent was evident early on. While still a student, she sold illustrations to British and European magazines.
But with the escalation of the Vietnam War, Coe was drawn to political activism. She moved to New York in 1972, believing America would offer her more career opportunities and allow her greater political expression. It was a critical career gamble for the 21-year-old, but it would pay off.
"There's not a raging class system here. There's a multiculturalism, an open-mindedness that is very exciting," she said.
Within hours of landing in New York, she received her first assignment from a major American newspaper. As she had suspected, her powerful, confrontational art, which featured subjects such as the Ku Klux Klan, Ethiopian famine and terrorism in Northern Ireland, was well-received.
Her drawings began appearing not only in large-circulation newspapers but also in publications such as the New Yorker, Village Voice, the Nation, Time, Newsweek, Rolling Stone, Esquire and Mother Jones.
During the 1970s, Coe taught at New York's School of Visual Arts, while selling political illustrations. She established herself as a versatile artist adept at paintings, drawings, lithographs, collages and etchings, skillfully using gouache, graphite, watercolor, ink, crayon and charcoal.
Coe's foremost talent was illuminating social problems ignored or concealed by governments, corporations, society or the media. In this way, she's been compared to great artists of the past, such as French caricaturist and painter Honore Daumier, German graphic artist Kathe Kollwitz and the Spanish master Francisco Goya.
In 1985, Coe published her first book, "How to Commit Suicide in South Africa." The title was a droll allusion to claims made by South African authorities that their jailed activists had died by their own hands. The moving images in Coe's book struck a chord with U.S. readers. It went through two printings and was distributed by anti-apartheid activists to investors as an effort to promote widespread divestiture of South African stock holdings.
"If one person becomes a beacon because of my work, that's my prize," she said. "As one activist put it, it's like pushing a boulder up a hill with the tip of your nose. It's not easy, but it can be done."
By the mid-1980s, Coe had turned her attention to the plight of animals, particularly those killed for human consumption. For six years, Coe researched the subject and visited slaughterhouses and hatcheries throughout the United States.
She said she saw cows and sheep languishing on hooks, de-beakings, dismemberments and live chicks plowed into the ground as fertilizer. Her disturbing tour prompted her to produce "Porkopolis," a series of 100 drawings of the gruesome scenes, followed by an illustrated book, "Dead Meat" (Four Walls Eight Windows, 1996).
"I want [people] to investigate further," she said. "I'm not proselytizing. I'm saying, 'Please see for yourself. Go to a slaughterhouse. See what occurs. And if you can't, ask yourself why."'
Coe is often asked how she can constantly expose herself to painful sights and atrocities. She responds that her artwork is therapy, and she's motivated by the knowledge that she may be able to effect change.
"A picture really is worth a thousand words," she said. "I could rattle off facts and figures. But when you pick up a chicken, and they're only flesh and bones, but you feel a rapidly beating heart, and you see there's a life force fighting to stay alive, that's what moves you."
Not surprisingly, Coe is a vegetarian. She lives simply in a one-room apartment in New York on about $25,000 a year, devoting herself to her art.
"I don't buy stuff I don't need," she said. "My work is more important than owning a microwave."
Coe sells some of her prints for as little as $30 to $60. She donates a percentage of her profit to Farm Sanctuary, a Watkins Glen, N.Y., humane organization. And she frequently travels the country lecturing about the subjects of her art.
"Her whole thrust is to reach beyond the confines of the art world to the public directly," Kallir of the Galerie St. Etienne said.
Coe continues her artistic activism with unflagging energy. She said she's able to do so because she's an optimist.
She believes that when wrongs are revealed to people, they will listen, contemplate the situations and, in many cases, take action.
"I couldn't do what I'm doing if I believed otherwise," she said.
Internationally renowned artist Sue Coe has supported herself through her art since she was 17.
As she has built her career, she said she has made lifestyle sacrifices and lived simply so that she could put her work first.
In her 33-year career, she has made great achievements with her art, which focuses on disturbing subjects that move viewers to reflection and change.
Coe's work is featured in museums worldwide, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian's National Museum of Art and Oxford, England's Museum of Modern Art.
Here are five tips she gives for artists beginning their careers:
* Put life before art.
* Put art before money.
* Before art can be a tool for change, it has to be art.
* Be true to your vision, without fear or favor.
* Try and limit how many machines live in your home.
© reprinted with permission of author
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