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Mary Britton Clouse -
For the Wonderful Chicken
By Dr. Annie Potts
I am delighted to introduce a new regular column featuring vegan artists and their creations on behalf of nonhuman animals. Each issue I aim to present the work of one or more artists from across the globe: first up, Mary Britton Clouse from Chicken Run Rescue, Minneapolis, USA.
Britton Clouse’s art is vitally connected to her compassion for nonhuman species, as well as her political and practical interventions on behalf of exploited animals. Following many years’ involvement in the animal rights movement, Britton Clouse founded Chicken Run Rescue in 2001, a safe-haven and rehabilitation centre for abandoned, neglected and abused domestic fowl. Operating from the Britton Clouse’s home in Minneapolis, Chicken Run Rescue locates caring, responsible adoptive homes for the chickens and other birds temporarily under its wing. Also the founder of Justice for Animals Arts Guild (JAAG), Britton Clouse challenges art which harms or exploits animals; she is devoted to creating and supporting art which advances the rights of nonhuman animals by prompting viewers to question their anthropocentric prejudices against other species.
Much of Britton Clouse’s own photography and paintings reflect her passion to revolutionize attitudes towards the most demeaned and manipulated creatures in the modern world: the chicken. Specifically, she strives to shift common negative assumptions about domestic fowl, explaining: “I see my rehabilitation work with animals and my activism as much a part of my art as pushing paint around a canvas. Both demand science, discipline, creativity, stamina, a willingness to be emotionally vulnerable and risk public ridicule and failure for an ideal”.
Hand and Hand (Mary Britton Clouse, 2007)
Some of Britton Clouse’s most inspiring works feature in a symposium at London Metropolitan Museum called “The Animal Gaze” (November 20-21, 2008). The striking photographic images of Nemo - Portrait/Self Portrait (2005) and Hand and Hand (2007), both digital pigment prints on display at this symposium, demonstrate the impact of juxtaposing human-chicken features, or linking chickens and humans by touch. Britton Clouse’s art here is powerful because it invites – and celebrates - an entirely accessible and positive appreciation of the human-chicken connection. It shows this connection occurring close-up and personal, created in tandem by the human and chicken in each shot. Most importantly, the chickens in Britton Clouse’s images appear as distinct beings, as unique avian co-artists in these pieces; in this way they challenge the overwhelming inclination for humans to view chickens as characterless, interchangeable and dispensable.
Nemo - Portrait/Self Portrait (Mary Britton Clouse, 2005)
Some of Britton Clouse’s art involving chickens has been fundamentally practical in its formation, obtained from fidgety birds being snapped for the adoption pages of her chicken sanctuary’s website (in fact, Britton Clouse holds the birds with one hand while taking pictures with the other). The arresting Nemo image, perhaps her most famous, was the product of just such a process, whereby the faces of human and chicken were momentarily, without posing and entirely accidentally, captured by the camera, in perfect unison. Ultimately such images are persuasive in fostering respect for chickens as individuals. The overturning of humankind’s objectification and trivialization of chickens is central to Britton Clouse’s work. She says: “I hope others can see beyond what they’ve never considered … to see the birds as I do and be touched, letting their guard down because they were looking at art and the truth got in”.
Recently I asked Britton Clouse a few questions about her passion for chickens and her quest – through her art and through her work at Chicken Run Rescue – to make the world a better place for all species.
AP: What inspired you to create art featuring chickens? What draws you to chickens in particular?
MBC: Simply- they are the underdogs of all underdogs.
In 2000, an exhibit at a local art institution with an international reputation included a cage with two live chickens as if they were inanimate objects. Thanks to an Action Alert by United Poultry Concerns, there was a huge public backlash to the exhibit and the chickens were removed. A small group of local artists/animal activists tried to initiate a dialogue and discovered that ethical and philosophical objections were brushed aside by the artists, curators and the local arts media, and the conflict instead was disingenuously characterized as "censorship". I began to take notice of an escalating incidence of horrific acts against animals in the name of art - a video tape of a cat tortured to death to be exhibited at a gallery in Toronto, a chicken beheaded in an art class at UC Berkley - eliciting public outcry and defensive tactics from the arts community. The trend has continued, each act more atrocious than the last - ‘food’ animals suffering most often as the least valued in society. Each year in the US, over 10 billion chickens suffer from intense confinement, cruel handling and painful terrifying deaths. Although they represent over 95% of the animals raised for agricultural and other purposes, chickens are excluded from protection of anticruelty laws, humane slaughter laws and laws that regulate experimentation.
Shortly after the live chicken exhibit, a cockfighting bust left seven roosters slated for death at the Minneapolis Animal Control facility. Despite being exhaustively involved in dog and cat rescue for many years, I was completely ignorant about the presence of chickens in the city and the lack of anyone who would help them. My husband and I decided to walk the walk and offered to try to find homes for them. Neither of us had ever held a chicken before. Every chicken impounded by Minneapolis Animal Control since then has found sanctuary in our home. I have always believed that truth in art is sacred and first hand experience is the most powerful tool. I had made a commitment to concentrate my activism on animals used in agriculture and fate had placed the most exploited and abused of them at my inner city doorstep.
AP: How does your art connect to the practical rescue work you do, and to your other activist work for animals?
MBC: Since 1990 my animal advocacy work has taken precedence over my artistic career when I served as President of the Minnesota based Animal Rights Coalition and founded other organizations including Minnesota Spay/Neuter Project, Legislative Efforts for Animal Protection and most recently Chicken Run Rescue and Justice for Animals Arts Guild. It is a constant struggle to keep up with the rescue and rehab work so studio time is extremely rare and I long for it.
My art has always involved animal imagery but as my animal work matured, I started to combine drawing, painting, sculpture, photography and installation with authentic artifacts like eating utensils and cages, restraint devices or tools used to mutilate or control animals. In some pieces, my quests for public data such as court records on cruelty cases using Freedom of Information and Minnesota Data Practices Acts and correspondence play an active role in the creation of the work - telling the stories of real individual animals.
The most recent work includes portrait photographs, paintings and sculptures about real birds I have rescued and rehabilitated (nearly 500 since 2001), blurring the lines between portrait and self portrait. As the rescued birds heal and express instinctive urges that have been denied, their unique individual personalities unfold. Human portraits have always held an esteemed place in the history of visual arts, but animal portraits, unless sanitized into metaphor or decoration, are marginalized as sentimental and not serious art. I think that marginalization is intellectual bias - new knowledge in biological and behavioral sciences expands evidence of animal sentience every day. That double standard says more about the anthropocentricity of the critic than the art.
I have intimate access to the birds because they need to be fed, cleaned, healed, sheltered and made happy. We are each others’ world for those intense moments. Ideas come to me unexpectedly - while mucking poop or looking into the eyes of a critically ill bird or witnessing as one surrenders into warm dirt and sunshine for the first time. My instinctive need for expression just sort of leaks out and my little Cannon Powershot has been my salvation where studio time is out of reach. So many ideas, so little time.
Simone (Mary Britton Clouse)
AP: Have you experienced any special relationships with chickens that have inspired your work?
MBC: Too many to count but Nemo is a perfect example. He was left for dead to freeze to death, too sick and weak to reach food or water, at the Dodge Nature Center - an environmental education center of all places. He was released to us in the dead of winter - frostbitten, dehydrated, emaciated and blind. We rushed him to emergency vet care, and learned more each day what a blind rooster could teach us about resilience. I have a fabulous photo of him glowing and crowing in brilliant sun and melting snow with hens all around him just a month later.
AP: What do you ultimately want your art to convey about chickens?
MBC: How alike we are.
AP: Anything else you would like to mention?
MBC: First, I’d like to direct people to our Chicken Run Rescue website and to our PetFinders website to read the stories and see the pictures of individual chickens who found hope. More of my art can be seen on my site.
Second, I think the days of the self involved artist marketed to wealthy patrons needs to be history. This is a world in desperate need of deep insights and compassion, critical thought and creativity. I used to think politics had no place in art, now I see them as inseparable.
Mary Britton Clouse is currently seeking artists whose work might be displayed at the dedicated exhibition space for the Justice for Animals Arts Guild (JAAG). This is located in the shared headquarters of the Animal Rights Coalition and Fast and Furless Vegan Boutique in Minneapolis. Along with her husband, Albert Clouse (Co-Founder and Co-Director of JAAG), Britton Clouse is hoping to curate up to five exhibitions per year. In particular, the Clouses are keen to showcase work by artists who are deeply involved in hands-on animal rescue and rehabilitation: “Rather than art about animals as metaphor, generic or decorative subject matter, [JAAG is interested] in art made about and for the benefit of real, unique, individual beings”.
For more information about submitting a Special Exhibit proposal for the JAAG exhibition space, email Mary Britton Clouse.
This article is from Vegan Voice, Australia's celebrated and singular quarterly magazine, "Promoting Compassion for All Beings."
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