It had been three difficult months.
During which, an unexpected series of life-changing events had made my life feel like a snow globe that was being continually shaken up.
Everything was in flux. Nothing was certain anymore.
And in this flurry of turbulent anxiety I was astonished to find myself on the receiving end of a small, but exceedingly callous amount of unkindness. Luckily, (I am relieved to say) I also received a much larger proportion of heartfelt kindness that provided both practical and emotional support.
People, eh? Complex, disappointing and amazing in equal measure.
And, right in the middle of this storm, there was the London Vegfest of the 21st – 22nd October. Long planned and much anticipated (by me) it had appeared like a signpost directing me out of the blizzard.
This massive vegan festival, held at the Olympia Conference Centre, had around 14, 000 visitors and showcased a mindboggling selection of health foods, sweet treats, cookery demos, clothes, charities and inspiring lectures… and one single art exhibition.
And once I was actually standing there on Saturday morning at the stall, with all the prints displayed on the walls, and all our cards, t-shirts and canvases on the table, I realised just how much the feeling of camaraderie and shared endeavour had grounded me.
I was part of a worldwide group of artists. And that was very cool. Indeed.
This new collective – a Vegan Art Movement – is loosely, but coherently gathered together under the banner of ‘The Art of Compassion’, thanks to the online diligence and tenacity of Leigh Sanders, a vegan activist and artist living in Catalonia. She has spent the last three years or so cajoling and encouraging an increasing number of vegan artists to take part in art projects to raise money for a variety of worthwhile vegan charities, as well as supplying ‘VeggieWorld’ festivals in many cities across Europe with a selection of art prints for display and auction. The AOC, acting as a not-for-profit organisation, has produced calendars, colouring-in books, postcards, prints and packs of ‘thank-you-for-serving-vegan-options’ cards. As well as this we have joined forces with the ‘Towards a Compassionate Nation’ charity in China and are beginning to take part in many vegan events in Beijing and Shanghai, and have been featured in the magazines ‘Vegan Life’, ‘Driftwood Vegan’ (USA), ‘Vegan Italy’ – and next January’s issue of ‘VegWorld’. From Tasmania to Scotland to America, this group of nearly one hundred artists encompasses a wide variety of art styles, with the common aim of promoting the ethical treatment of animals all over the world.
The London Vegfest 2017 was our largest venture to date. Twenty seven of our artists had paid for a selection of prints to be made of their work, and artists Sara Sechi, Silvia Colafrancesco, Aisha Eveleigh and I had volunteered to be there to promote the AOC name. All the prints on display were for sale for bargain prices, and every last penny was to be given to Animal Aid.
From 11am on Saturday until 5pm Sunday the stall attracted a constant flow of visitors – people of all ages, all nationalities. Interest and praise, discussion and positivity, enthusiasm and surprise. These were the feelings of the day.
As an artist working in isolation (as well as previously in the restrictive and non-creative environment of an office) it was a revelation to find that my new colleagues in the AOC felt as I did – that we were already connected. As we talked during the weekend, the four of us discovered that many art collectors, exhibitions and animal sanctuaries already linked us together. This invisible network of connections was now revealed, and – in my case anyway – very much made me feel as if I belonged to something at last. Art, ethics AND empathy gathered in one place. Very cool. Indeed.
In the relentless hustle and bustle of the weekend we were approached by an eclectic mix of individuals who were fascinated by the uniqueness of this creative venture. Amongst others, I met and talked to vegan art students, an activist/youtuber from Turkey, parents wanting inspirational art for their young children, the owner of a vegan supermarket, a street festival organiser and even several people who recognised me from Viva! (It seemed that, after fourteen years of being a ‘model’ in their merchandise catalogue my dogged persistence had paid off!)
There were also people wanting to join us to add their own particular talents to the cause: a sculptor, a poet, a psychotherapist who wanted our artwork for her courses on ‘empathy in practice’, and the national organiser for the ‘Stop the War Coalition’. The latter talked to me of the possibility of a Labour Minister for Animal Welfare, and wanted to know if there was an anthology of Vegan Art in existence – happily there IS, as the AOC are currently producing just such a book. The first of its kind as far as I’m aware… and surely not the last, judging by the public’s response to the exhibition.
Thanks to Sara’s generosity, Aisha, myself and Silvia were able to stay overnight on Saturday at her flat in Hackney (as returning home to Bristol, Bath and Rome would’ve been a tad inconvenient). As we sat on the sofa and packed up AOC postcards, printed up stall signs and fussed Sara’s charming cat Aria, we discovered that our ‘connection’ extended beyond a shared love of art, and that smut, innuendo and off-colour jokes are truly cross-cultural. And no – I’m not giving examples. (You had to be there).
This is when the name ‘VAM’ (Vegan Art Movement) was first discussed – but sadly we were too tired to do any better than that. (Vegan Animal Rights Art Movement? VARAM? Animal Rights Art Movement? ARAM? Nope. You see the problem)
Meanwhile, back in the ‘fest…
In amongst the spicy, sweet and savoury aromas of lush food, and amongst the crowds of families, activists, athletes, students, as well as those new to the vegan world, I felt a palpable sense of shared empathy, and – for me in particular – a new beginning. Something I’ve needed for a long time. And that’s when the title of this blog post came to mind. It’s a quote from ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which for twenty years I have carried with me as a dictum to aspire to – and yet repeatedly failed to abide by. But if the AOC ever formulate some kind of overwhelming, all-encompassing ‘manifesto’ for the fledgling ‘Vegan Art Movement’, I can’t think of a better tenet to begin with.
In answer to the negative and hurtful people I’ve encountered in the last three months, in praise of the kindness of friends old and new, and in remembrance of the animal world we are fighting in myriad ways to save…
‘Let us be, first and above all, kind.’
P.S. From the sale of the AOC prints at Vegfest, we were massively pleased to be able to give ‘Animal Aid’ £500 – GO VAM!!