(An excerpt from my part of the presentation given by me and fellow artist Helen Barker at the International Animal Rights Conference in Luxembourg, on Friday 6th September, 2019)
My name is Philip McCulloch-Downs and I would usually let my artwork speak for me, but today is a very special exception.
I have always been an artist, but how I became an activist is a fairly recent event. I hope my story will resonate with some of you, as despite our different backgrounds, I think that everyone here today shares the same ethics.
Ever since I was a little boy I’ve always had a healthy dislike for eating meat, and, according to my parents, as an infant, I went on a school trip to a local farm and rather than be reassured by the idyllic rural sights we were shown, I came home really disturbed by what I’d seen.
But it wasn’t until I was 19 years old that I became a vegetarian. I was in the car, stopped at a traffic lights, and a truck transporting sheep to be slaughtered stopped next to me. I was actually on my way home after watching a horror film called ‘Hellbound’, which was very apt in describing the scene that I was suddenly confronted with.
My girlfriend of the time said to me ‘How can you justify eating meat when you see that?’
And I couldn’t. So that was it. I became a vegetarian right then and there.
I thought ‘Well, I’ve done enough now. My ethics are sorted’ and I managed to avoid thinking about the subjects of dairy, eggs and leather for another 16 YEARS. Now, that IS shameful and ignorant, but unfortunately, not unusual for people of my generation.
SO when I volunteered at a local animal rights organisation I FINALLY saw the truth that had been hidden from me – or rather the truth that I had been hiding from. And the facts that I learned about animal agriculture were unavoidable, unforgettable and totally unacceptable.
My own ‘comfort zone ‘ that I’d been living in was suddenly and permanently irrelevant.
I became vegan, and started a part-time job at the AR organisation.
For the next decade my paintings, my novels and my poetry became predominantly concerned with environmental and vegan issues. BUT my art and my ethics only truly came together 5 years ago, in 2014, when I read the book ‘We Animals’ by the photographer Jo-Anne McArthur.
I was so moved by this incredibly powerful book that I decided to paint a portrait of the author as a surprise gift. It was THIS decision that was the turning point in my life.
The response to the painting (‘The Ghost Camera’) on social media – and from Jo herself – was so overwhelming that it changed my life literally overnight, and I decided to try to be an animal rights artist.
I only knew of one other AR artist, the world-famous Sue Coe, who’s work had inspired me at art college – and it was a VERY daunting prospect to attempt to be anything like this legendary figure! I felt very naïve – it was like starting as a student at art college all over again.
I had no illusions about the longevity or effectiveness of my decision, so I thought I’d just do ONE painting and see what happened.
And what happened was pretty good. My first painting (‘Life Sentence – the invisible faces of dairy’) sold to The Sheppard Collection in London at a fundraising auction , and so did my next one (‘Happy Cows’), and the third one (‘One in a million’) sold to a private collection that is now on permanent display at the Land der Tiere animal sanctuary in Germany.
So this gave me a clear message that this was going to be a really profound and long-lasting change in my life.
Then I was contacted by Leigh Sanders, an artist from Spain, after she’d seen those first few pictures online. She asked if I’d like to join her fledgling online collective, the ‘Art of Compassion Project’ – a group of artists who would donate their artwork for exhibitions in order to raise money for various animal charities/sanctuaries. This meant the world to me, and I felt that it truly validated my efforts. And so I was one of the very first animal rights artists to join this vegan art collective – which now has over 150 artists in it.
That was the SECOND turning point in my life – and it’s lead to me being here at the International Animal Rights Conference today.
The best activist art should hold a mirror up to society and speak eloquently to the viewer in a language that transcends borders and cultures.
So – I took my new role seriously, and I chose to do 3 things:
1) To record the suffering of farmed animals with complete accuracy
2) To capture their individuality and their dignity
3) To confront the viewer with the most disturbing images I could find in order to provoke an emotional response, by simply showing the reality of factory farming, up close and personal.
I began by using photographs from factory farms taken by undercover investigators, who are the unsung heroes of the AR movement. I owe ALL my early success to the work of these wonderful, brave people.
I quickly discovered that the finding of a title was an essential part in the completion of all the paintings. A title can really elevate the artwork, it can also subvert the meaning of the painting, OR explain an enigmatic image. On the other hand, an ill-considered title can ruin a piece of art and destroy it’s credibility – and so I took a very long time in searching for the words that I chose for my titles and text.
So that was my manifesto. It saw me through 3 years of part-time art, a handful of vegan art exhibitions, and lots of campaign videos on YouTube. But then I encountered a problem.
The support that I’d relied on suddenly disappeared. Up till that time I’d seen my art as something that added a unique emotional and aesthetic aspect to the AR company I worked for, but they wanted it to be purely commercial and didn’t have the belief in it that I did.
I quickly found out that ‘selling sincerity’ doesn’t really fit into any business model.
It was a very testing time, but it really focussed my mind on asking myself ‘WHY do I do this?’
Is it for money? Or for adoration? Or is it genuinely out of respect for animals and a desire to end their suffering?
ALL artists need to earn a living, and we ALL need appreciation, but this is a very particular form of art – and the usual rules don’t apply.
The work of any serious animal rights artist is ENTIRELY about experiencing empathy with animals, and NOT about watering down our ideas or compromising our ideals to ‘please the management’.
So I left my job.
The ‘Art of Compassion Project’ really came into it’s own at that point. I had a network of artists from all over the world who were available whenever needed. They were supportive, non-judgemental and really understood the practical and psychological issues involved in creating this type of emotional art. We share our problems AND our successes, and I’m pretty sure I can speak for all our artists when I say that, as individuals, isolation may be great for concentration and inspiration, but that as a collective, we are much stronger and more resilient.
And so, for the last 2 years I’ve been working in isolation at my house in the countryside, with over 150 artists from all over the world by my side in spirit.
Since I painted that very first, life-changing portrait of Jo-Anne McArthur, all my AR artwork has been created as an act of ‘controlled fury’ – a deeply emotional reaction to the casual cruelty and ignorance of our society, and to the lies and deceit of the farming industries. I think that using my art in this way – to bear witness to the insanity of the human world – has actually saved my own sanity.
Recently there’s been a huge rise in veganism, in activism and (thanks to the Art of Compassion) in ARTIVISM, and this has encouraged me to be more honest and uncompromising in my work. To make people really FEEL and THINK.
When I was 22 I gained a bachelor of arts degree in illustration, but in the last 5 years I feel that I’ve gained so much more than a simple degree. I’ve certainly learned new painting techniques, but more importantly I’ve gained a deeper sense of understanding and empathy with animals. I’ve spent so many hours studying beautiful creatures and depicting horrifying cruelty, that it feels like I’ve done a PHD in pure emotion.
In the future I’d like to take this so-called VEGAN ART, remove that title completely, and have exhibitions that are just FINE ART in public galleries – NOT stigmatized or reduced by a label – just CONTEMPORARY ART about REAL, EVERYDAY LIFE.
Recently, the Jewish Art Salon based in New York – a well-known and very reputable organisation – attempted to curate an exhibition entitled ‘Through Compassionate Eyes: Artists call for Animal Rights’. Despite the salon having organised many art shows in the past, all their usual venues let them down because of the theme of the work, and it took over two years to find a gallery space that would agree to host it. Finally, the Charter Oak Cultural Centre in Hartford, Connecticut agreed, and it was a great success within that open-minded, educational environment.
So as this story illustrates, this type of art is still controversial.
It is shunned by the conventional, corporate world – and therefore this reminds us how NECESSARY it is to keep creating it and sharing it.
I’m just one example out of many artivists from all over the world, and we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We are just the very latest examples of people who have used their creative skills to fight for a cause we truly believe in.
We have truth and creativity on our side
– and that is a very POWERFUL and LIBERATING combination.
Watch the full version of my talk (in two parts) on YouTube:
Read my blog post about the AOCP at IARC 2019 HERE.
Read artist Helen Barker’s part of the above talk HERE.