Artist Sue Coe will discuss her new book, "Topsy — The Elephant We Should Never Forget," at Endicott College tonight.
Coe, who studied at the Royal College of Art in her native England, has worked in the United States for more than 30 years, primarily as an illustrator for The New York Times, New Yorker magazine and Rolling Stone, among other publications.
Coe's intensely political work has moved from addressing the topical issues in headlines toward exploring particular themes, usually relating to the human use of animals, in series of prints and paintings that are often published in books.
Her talk is part of Endicott's "Visual Trilogy," a three-part celebration of the graphic arts that includes exhibits of student design work and The Society of Illustrators' 52nd Annual Traveling Exhibition.
The Gloucester Daily Times recently spoke with her about Topsy, a former circus elephant.
What is Topsy's story?
She killed twice. She was burned with cigarettes, she was abused, and she killed. There's some evidence that she killed three times, but it's so long ago and difficult to trace. When an animal kills, then as now, they change the name. The word "topsy" meant "out-of-control female."
What happened to her?
(Thomas) Edison electrocuted her in 1903. It was in Coney Island, then called Luna Park. It was the showcase for the first electricity. Topsy, after she had helped build Luna Park, had to drag a large ride there called "Airship to the Moon."
Electrocuting an elephant was a form of entertainment?
Edison had the patent on DC (direct current) electricity, and he wanted to prove that his patent, direct current, was preferable to AC (alternating current), so she was actually electrocuted by AC while DC was (supposed to be) safe. They got a lot of money from the crowds to watch, I think 50 cents. It's also one of the first, if not the first, moving picture Edison made. You can find on YouTube her being electrocuted. People actually think she's going up in smoke — she's actually evaporating. The book is, "Every time you switch on a light, you should remember Topsy."
Topsy's electrocution was one more way to profit off animals?
It's how animals are treated in entertainment, going back to Jumbo. Their use value to the circus and to advertising as a whole: It was cultural imperialism, to show how powerful America was, to promote how powerful your economic system is. All kinds of products used the elephant as an indicator of the power of man to control and dominate such a large creature. Bigger bubbles from soap, bigger tires on autos, etc. The term "Jumbo-sized" still lives in our language.
How did they get circus elephants?
They were kidnapped as babies in Africa. The whole herd would have been shot to get at the babies.
Your painting of Topsy shows her chained behind the tent, while other elephants perform in the ring; was that her situation most of the time in the circus?
They were on the road 23 hours a day, until they were free. Animals aren't chained by their legs anymore, they're hot-wired — nothing as crude as chains. There's a single wire. Once they've been electrocuted once, they turn it off. They're imprisoned by learned helplessness. Now as then, all that's concealed from people. I shine the light backstage.
How can mistreatment of animals be stopped?
Animal rights abolitionists (say human) abolition came about not by telling individuals, white people, "Get rid of your slaves." It came about because the slave trade itself was attacked, the trade was banned. That's how it must be in the animal trade, because individually, we all love our meat, individuals love their pets, love seeing animals in zoos, in circuses. We look at other social justice movements and how that changed.
Your works tell these powerful stories, but without being a turnoff.
What I'm trying to do as an artist is not lecture people. I want to find true life stories that reveal a pattern of how we function.
You started work as an illustrator for newspapers, working on deadline. Why did you start doing these long-term projects?
All my work up until the last 10 years was governed by the media. (You would) get overnight to come up with an image. By noon the next day, you had to have a solution. It's like being an old jazz musician. But I got increasingly frustrated by churning stuff out overnight. I wanted to investigate for myself. When I worked for the New York Times they'd say, "Don't make it too dark, too heavy, too political ..."
But it was dark and political.
It's that compromising, I think, that makes for an interesting life. You have to negotiate what you want, so you have to define what you want. In the art world, my work would be considered unsellable. What do you think the market for that would be? But it's shedding the light, it's a disinfectant, let in sunlight to whatever despairing situation that is. It's part of the cure.
What can art students learn from your career?
There are more opportunities for art students than they think. They can create their own art world, they don't have to fit in anyone else's.
Staff writer Will Broaddus may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you go
What: Artist Sue Coe, speaking on her book "Topsy — The Elephant We Should Never Forget," as part of Endicott College's "Visual Trilogy" exhibit
When: Tonight, with reception from 5 to 7, lecture from 7 to 8:30.
Where: Rose Performance Hall, Center for the Arts, Endicott College, 376 Hale St., Beverly
More information: Free. Call 978-232-2655 or visit www.endicott.edu/centerforthearts. Coe will have prints for sale at the exhibit.