Cover picture “Garden Pests”
“To me there is no inconsistency in being both a biologist and an animal rights advocate. Indeed, I would argue that if the one is practiced fully and correctly then the other should follow automatically”
Vegan artist Andrew Tilsley kindly agrees to be interviewed. Thank you Andrew.
First of all Andrew, can you tell us something about your early years? What sort of family did you grow up in? Were you brought up vegetarian or vegan? Were you always into making art?
I grew up in a very supportive, fairly traditional working class Manchester family. My parents were not traditional in some important ways – more than anything else, they encouraged my brother and me to think for ourselves and to ask questions. We weren’t brought up with religion or any other pre-formed idea of who and what we should be.
Were you always into making art?
I spent most of my childhood drawing. I was obsessed with animals from my earliest days. I basically refused to learn anything unless it was animal-related and my favourite childhood ‘toys’ were a set of wildlife encyclopedias. I discovered very early on that animals could be categorised as herbivore, omnivore, carnivore and so on, and I felt more closely allied to ‘gentle’ deer and antelopes than to lions and bears. I told my parents, aged 3 or 4, that I wanted to be a herbivore.
What were you like as a child? What are your early memories?
My earliest memory is asking my mum “what the queen was for”, and being entirely unsatisfied with the answer. Aged 3, I wanted to be a pig when I grew up and didn’t fully understand why this was not possible. I learned very early on that adults did not always know better than me, and that teachers at school often made things up. I can remember being told things like “pigs give us bacon” as if it was some kind of trade deal between pigs and farmers. Obviously, I soon learnt the truth of this arrangement and did all I could to distance myself from it.
I remember that some work was being done in our kitchen and there was a hole about an inch across that went down into the foundations of the house – it was the perfect size to drop a sausage or a fish finger down, so I didn’t have to eat it. After that, I used to bring copious amounts of tissue down to the dinner table, hide meat in it, put it in my pocket and then flush it down the toilet later. The notion of eating flesh was so utterly disgusting to me and that has never changed; meal times as a younger child were always this ordeal I had to get through of avoiding eating the meat on my plate. By age 7, my parents succumbed and let me become a vegetarian. I think my mum thought that I was going to get ill, but I was a very robust and healthy child and she stopped worrying after a while.
Was there a particular event that made you suddenly aware of the way animals are treated, or was this a gradual process?
There was no particular event. I always saw animals as sentient, autonomous beings – something equal to me but fascinatingly different. I think a lot of kids start out like this but they are inculcated into the cruel system and before long they are trapped in a hypocritical position. Very early on, I became the local kid who everyone brought injured animals to… my childhood was filled with disabled pigeons, abandoned rabbits and orphaned thrushes, all of whom I tried (and often failed) to nurse back to health. Because my parents were so encouraging of independent thought and of bringing us up to be kind and decent, they could hardly complain that I extended my empathy to all living things. Gradually, as I understood more about how the world works, I became very confident in my vegetarianism even though I did not meet another vegetarian until I was 15 years old.
What changes did you make to your own life as a result?
For a long time I thought that being a vegetarian was enough, then I learned that veganism was a thing. I tried soya milk in about 1987 (aged 13) and I thought it was completely disgusting! To be fair, I expect soya milk was completely disgusting in 1987. I didn’t really think about it again until a few years later, veganism seemed to be something that rich popstars did, something unattainable to me. However, things changed both personally and societally. By 1992, I was at university in Scotland, studying Environmental Biology, and I guess the circumstances were right. This time I did have a sudden event, I can remember quite clearly walking down a particular street and being struck by the realisation that the meat industry and the dairy industry were the same thing; that one could not exist without the other. I felt terrible, culpable and realised I needed to make changes. I decided to try veganism for a month and see what happened… well, nothing untoward happened, I felt great. Over the next year, I gradually cut out all animal products and started to learn how to cook (I had been mostly living on peanut butter sandwiches and fruit); by 1994, I was thinking of myself as a vegan.
And what difficulties if any did you encounter? Were friends and family supportive?
Some of my friends didn’t get it, especially when I was still at school. I can remember being compared to Neil from the Young Ones and people using the word vegetarian derisively… but they may as well have tried to bully me for breathing or for having feet: I always knew that I was completely right to be vegetarian and I never needed to be part of anyone’s ‘cool club’. That sense of self was a direct result of my upbringing, especially my mum’s influence.
I remember, aged about 18, my best friend at the time saying “you would probably be as tall as your (older) brother if you’d not been vegetarian”. I was incredulous, I was already 6 feet tall at the time (my brother was 6 foot 2) and I said “I am 5 inches taller than my dad and 10 inches taller than my mum, exactly how tall do I need to be?”
My family were always supportive. Although they never made the change themselves, they were always very eager to try new vegan food and loved me cooking for them. Initially, they were worried I would get ill, but over time they accepted that I was one of the healthiest people they knew and gradually realised that vegan food was generally healthier as well as delicious. My mum and dad have both died since, my mum just last year, but they were both supportive and encouraging at all times – I have been so very lucky in that respect.
What would a typical day look like for you?
Not sure how to answer this, I’m not fond of routine so I don’t really have typical days. I try to have a vegetable smoothie every morning – get my 5-a day in one go.
Do you get involved with any kind of activism other than your art?
I used to do a lot of environmental and AR activism but, in recent years, for various reasons, my focus has been on vegan outreach. There is a local vegan group where I live (3 Valley Vegans) and we put on monthly events to promote veganism and a compassionate lifestyle.
Is there something that you feel particularly strongly about?
Hunting is the worst for me. I know I’m different from a lot of vegans in this respect but my strongest affinities have always been with wildlife, rather than domestic animals. To me, the destruction of something wild and free is the worst thing in the world.
Are you ‘parent’ to any animal companions?
Not presently. My partner and I are lucky to be able to travel a lot and we have decided that it is not the right time to be responsible for companion animals. In the past I have looked after rats, gerbils, mice, parrots, guinea pigs and rabbits, as well as injured wildlife, and I will do so again in the future when the time is right.
Where do you get the inspiration for your art?
Sad to say, my vegan paintings are usually inspired by anger. My other paintings – often wildlife art – are inspired by the beauty in the world. So… anger and beauty.
What is the most interesting project you’ve been engaged in?
Dunno. Not really art stuff… so far, I’ve never had great gratification from collaborative art projects. I have done a lot of conservation work though – especially with sea turtles in Greece and Costa Rica – and that has inspired and engaged me greatly.
How do you see your career progressing, ideally?
Life has changed a lot for me in recent years, defined by the long term illness and death of people I love… my perspectives have changed significantly. Also, my day job at Manchester University is coming to an end, because of government cuts… I am trying to stay positive and I am in a position now, for the first time, of really focusing on what I want to do with the rest of my life. I have a good idea of the direction I am will move in and I am preparing to start along that pathway… stay tuned!
What would you like to achieve for animals, what would you like to achieve in your life and in your art?
I do not imagine that my art will change the world but I also don’t think it needs to – that is not the reason I create it.
I will continue subtly striving to be the best version of myself; I want to be a gentle, positive force in the lives of those I overlap with but not in an egotistical way.
It is possible to try and limit the damage that we inflict daily as human beings and people can make positive changes to their lifestyles which have beneficial effects on everyone and everything around them. Veganism is a good starting point as a lot of of the damage and cruelty is immediately eliminated or reduced… but it is not enough on it’s own. I’ve known vegans to be self-righteous and judgemental in ways which are damaging to our cause; further, I have met racist, sexist, homophobic, bullying and/or fundamentalist vegans… I understand how easy it is to fall into despair with humanity but perpetuating forms of prejudice is not the answer.
It sounds clichéd perhaps, but only enlightenment can banish ignorance. And only love can conquer hate.
See more of Andrew’s brilliant work on his Facebook page