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ICON: Sue Coe Interview

3x3: While I'm very familiar with your work I'm wondering if you might give   our readers, a bit of a background on how you became the artist/ illustrator you are today. Schooling, early influences, that sort of thing.

Sue Coe: Always wanted to be an artist, but thought it was impossible. At aged 16 I was a typist, and also working in a Mars Bars Factory, just outside London.  

3x3: Where you born in London? What did you do at Mars?

SC: I was born in the middle of England, but at a few days old was brought to south London to live, the Fulham/Hammersmith area. At the Mars Factory, I worked on a conveyor belt, packing the candy bars, into larger containers. This was done at considerable speed.

3x3: What did your parents do for a living? were there artistic influences from them?

SC:My mother was taken out of art school, to do 'war work' which was to work for the telephone exchange. My father worked for an engineering company, in sales, and he would carve wooden boxes in his spare time. From my parents, I learned to appreciate craft.

3x3: And your interest in art and illustration?

SC: I heard that I could apply to art school, so filled  out the forms, and got in. As earning a living was an important factor, illustration appeared to be something that could possibly bring  in a living wage.

3x3: So there was never a consideration to become a fine artist?

SC: No.

3x3: Early influences?

SC: The only art I saw as a child was the cartoon strip in the daily newspaper, called Rupert, the story of a bear and his friends, and the political cartoon of the day, both of which I studied. My   grandparents had sepia photos of all our relatives that died in wars, surrounded by this amazing embroidery, of flags and flowers, all of which was fascinating.

3x3: Politics seems to play an important part in your work, were there other influences early on?

SC: I don't think it is politics as such, but a sense of injustice, and the idea that art can be used to speak for those that cannot. My   influences growing up, were playing in bombed out areas, and hiding in bomb shelters, that had fallen into disuse. Looking up at hi rise flats, amazed that entire rooms and floors of flats would be exposed to the eye, complete with sofas and pictures, after a bomb had destroyed the walls, like giant dolls houses but with no dolls. Questioning adults why so many had to die, not receiving logical answers, and then there was a slaughter house a block away, and a small factory farm at the back of our house, so it was living among innocents who were about to die, and the war memorials of the dead. The perfect incubator for art thoughts.

3x3: What type of art were you doiing?

SC: As a little child, I would take out colored chalks and make very long involved pavement drawings down the street, and this activity got me the attention of passersby who were not allowed to step on the art.

3x3: What were the subjects of these drawings?

SC: Animals.

3x3: And your art training?

SC: At art school, the teaching was extremely ridged, training us how to set type, and do very formulaic life drawing. There was a disconnect between what was being taught and the reality of the world. The Vietnam War was raging, and the students decided to take over the school, in solidarity with the French students and workers who had gone on national strike, and  to draw attention to the war, and finally the inequality in the British class based educational system, this action was met with massive resistance of  the administration, and later the police force.  They tried to starve us out basically, and threatened to not graduate students, this was when my real education began.

3x3:Did you just demonstrate or did you do art for this movement?

SC: I did both, but my 'political' art at that time, consisted of posters stating where to meet etc, very crude. I was aged 17 and had very few art skills. If you go up against  the system, you see the true nature of reality. My father threw food over the police barricade. Very few teachers backed up the strike, but the ones that did, were the best - they were fired of course. Just before this event, Yoko Ono came as a visiting artist. This was the first female artist I had seen, who was not a student, and I was impressed at her creativity and wit, and her power - the male teachers were outraged - they were all male teachers, and this was another part of my education. During the take over,  marxist activists came to speak, and John Lennon donated money to the students for food, as he lived in the area - this was before he met Yoko Ono. Some of the visitors to our strike, were artists who had political content in their work, they made posters and agit prop work, and I saw that it was possible to integrate art and content, this was a revelation.  

3x3: What other female artists do you admire?

SC: Kathe Kollwitz, Rachel Rosenthal, Rosa Bonheur, Elizabeth Catlett, Frida Kahlo, Jaune Quick-To-See Smith.

3x3: So you did do art during this period? what were your subjects? were they more verbally driven, or visually driven?

SC: At the time, I was not confident to make art with any content, my highest dream was to get a job maybe designing wallpaper, or working for a greeting card company. But I did gravitate to the activist students, and started to investigate the ideology of marxism, and become increasingly interested in art that rejected fascism, and war, such as John Heartfield and George Grosz. At art school we were not free to choose our subjects - we were given the most boring (to me) projects one could ever imagine, and had to do them, to get the degree. Projects such as design a candy wrapper, cornflakes packaging etc. At some point, I decided failure was a more honorable course, and rebelled. And I would have failed, but for one teacher, who supported my ideas.

3x3:Tell me a little about your working process now? how do you start?

SC: It starts with direct seeing of some event, that is disturbing, and needs the light of day to shine on it, or an attempt at illumination, such as the most obvious weapons of mass destruction, like factory farming, and poverty - so much is concealed in this culture, so it is my trying to find out the information about these subjects. The images could stay in my mind for years, or minutes, before that scene is filtered through my memory to the paper. Around an image, I do a lot of research to make sure that the series of works is accurate, I tend to work sequentially, in a mode that I think of reportage, or visual journalism. The work process is one of reminding myself, that content creates the form, not the other way around.

3x3: Tell me about one of your most favorite assignments.

SC: I loved working for the NYTimes, all the overnight op-ed page jobs, as coming up with something visually interesting in a few hours, that meets the requirements of editors is a real challenge. Mirko Ilic was the art director, and he did not give a damn, he pushed the envelope of what was acceptable, as he knew he did not want to keep the job for very long! My favorite assignments are ones I give myself, and then get published - and those are issues of which I am ignorant, and am curious about, whether it be how slaughterhouses work, or what makes the avian virus such a threat, or what makes for contradiction and why we accept and cooperate with systems that are not in our interest.

3x3: What are you working on now?

SC: I am finishing up a very long series on the live transport of millions of sheep that go across oceans and are then slaughtered for food, which will be a book called Sheep of Fools. Am also working on a series of woodcuts about how people are suffering in Iraq, gauging into wood, its something to do when you get angry, get a hammer and chisel, and make the wood fly.

3x3: Do you see yourself as a fine artist, illustrator or something else entirely?

SC: Very few creative people fit into a comfortable category. Sometimes I work for the printed page, make reportage art, do books, other times have shows in galleries and museums, sometimes do political propaganda, other times am an activist artist, and have done many hundreds of illustrations some good, some bad. I enjoy calling myself an illustrator in the gallery context, because there is nothing more despised in an art critics mind, than an 'illustrator' - maybe 'cartoonist' is even lower on the what is hi art scale.

3x3: When you look at illustration today, what do you like?

SC: The most exciting work for me today, is sequential art, stories directly observed in cartoon and book form, such as the work of artists in World War 3, and Blab. Also love Kentridge from South Africa, who is making these giant drawings that move.

3x3: When you were teaching how did you motivate your students?

SC: By suggesting there is no intelligent art, without an intelligent artist, to thoroughly research any topic, to have confidence in their own unique vision, and to create their own market, not wait to fit into any existing one.

3x3: Tell me about your relationships with art directors. Do you feel you are allowed the freedom to express yourself?

SC: The role of art director has changed over the years, from encouraging artists to be original risk takers, and defending the artists work from visually illiterate editors, to becoming the nervous gatekeeper censor with the rolodex, for the publication that pays them. Magazines and newspapers no longer strive for basic reporting, but synergy, spinning off a movie or a book, owned by the the same conglomerate. Freedom is not something one is allowed, it is something that has to be struggled for. To be an artist is hard enough, in terms of monetary reward - the only real prize is freedom. I associate illustration with journalism, and today journalism is something to be feared by the mainstream publications. There is more real information on a faux news show such as The Daily Show, and more journalism in a cartoon strip. What is intriguing about being an artist, over most other professions, is that there are no right or wrong answers, there is only the search for meaning.

3x3: What advice would you give someone thinking about becoming an illustrator?

SC: Its an excellent basis to learn the craft of making visually interesting statements, in a very short amount of time. If it doesn't kill you off, it will make you a stronger artist, being an illustrator is like being an old blues player, traveling around the country playing at small run down bars or clubs, the money is bad, many of the jobs silly, but you have the opportunity to perfect the craft. Art only becomes art when someone sees it, and illustration is immediately accessible to people who would not normally be interested in 'art'. There is a lack of self consciousness in illustration, a type of humility in being a pencil for hire, that is lacking in art made specifically to hang on a gallery wall. The restrictions on work for the printed page, make it more of a hurdle to jump higher.

3x3: What do you think about the future of illustration?

SC: The future of images, and those that create images, has never looked more interesting. There is a gigantic maw out there, starving for pictures, an opportunity for artists who can create their own worlds and share them without waiting for permission from the mainstream publications. As the market for journalism in America shrinks, images illustrating or illuminating the literal text will not be necessary, there are only so many ways to depict the joys of corpocracy, and the 'war on terror'. As a reaction to that, artists will find other means to report the truth, self publishing, doing their own investigative journalism, and this too will enter the mainstream. As artists generally do not work for money, they cannot be controlled by money.