Unlearning Our Concept of Animals

May 12, 2015

 

I am boggled and honored to have my children's books academically analyzed by two university lecturers, Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart. 

Their book, Our Children and Other Animals: The Cultural Construction of Human-Animal Relations in Childhood, includes quite a discussion of my work—the imagery and representation of animals, my illustration techniques, compositions—how they all help young readers conceptualize their relation to animals. 

I've taken many art history courses and have always been leery of my teachers' analyses of artworks. As an artist, myself, and having drawers full of unfinished work I'd never want anyone to see, I imagine that maybe even Degas would have scoffed at the heavy meaning assigned to any one of his works—maybe a painting he would've wanted to throw in the garbage. 

Having my work in the hot seat, though, I have to say, Cole and Stewart shocked me with their accuracy. I was stunned at the clarity with which they perceived not only my intentional illustrative strategies, but subconscious decisions, too. 

They captured emotions I felt while painting these books, unspoken messages I wanted to relay to my potential young readers, and they beautifully articulated many of the underlying, tacit motives for designing the book as I did—from the animals' eyes to the composition of racing animals running to an implied, but invisible end.  

A couple excerpts (edited here for length):

"...Roth eschews both photorealism and anthropomorphism. The latter is evident in the depiction of animals with small eyes, and the absence of mouths in many cases...foreclosing the anthropomorphic trope of the loving dewy/baby-eyed gaze and the grin directed towards a human view/consumer. Instead, Roth's illustrations emphasize snouts or tails; less 'human' aspects of other mammal's embodiments. Roth's animals, then, are resolutely 'other.' The illustrative style asserts an inaccessibility to objectifying knowledge but also their fascination; their capacity to inspire wonder. Children are tacitly enjoined to take lasting pleasure in the living beauty of other animals..."

In other words, where I don't draw a big, anthropomorphized smiling mouth on a cow, or giant "cute" eyes on a bunny, it forces the reader to relate to the animal on the animals' terms. Kids can wonder about them without the animal serving any need—to be cute or entertaining, for example, as animals most often do in children's books, movies, and toys. 

On the illustration in Vegan Is Love, of a silhouetted crowd in a dark room of a marine life park, staring in on a live orca behind glass:

"The humans are depicted as emotionally distanced from the animals as spectacle or experimental tool. Humans' capacities as empathetic subjects are shown to be stunted through their very engagement with objectifying practices. The implicit message is therefore that we confine and kill some part of ourselves as we confine and kill others."

Nailed it. Visiting business where animals are used for entertainment shuts off a part of ourselves, beginning in childhood. 

If you love sociology and the study of veganism, too, this academic book is a fascinating look at how we come to relate to animals and what we need to address in order to change the status quo. It'll exercise your mind and help you discuss veganism even more intelligently with others, too. Especially kids.