Andrew Tisley, 42, vegan artist and biologist, lives in West Yorkshire. He has been a study coach for university students for the past 10 years but has always pursued his art work alongside this career. Through his incredible artwork Andrew conveys his feelings towards animals, often sending out a strong message of the cruel reality some animals face. Andrew is also inspired by the animals he helps during his voluntary work around the world.
Andrew, have you always been interested in 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 encyclopaedias. 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, and 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 when 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.
Did something specific happen to make you want to become vegetarian?
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.
How and why did you decide to take the next step and become vegan?
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.
Did you find this difficult, or were you supported?
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.
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.
3 Valley Vegans is a vegan outreach group, based in Calderdale, West Yorkshire. We are a diverse collective of people with the common aim of promoting a cruelty-free lifestyle. We put on events each month - cooking demonstrations, film nights, information stalls, catering, food festivals, walks and socials, all focused at promoting animal-free consumption. This year, we did our first Vegan Festival in Todmorden and it was so very successful, that we're hoping to make it an annual event. We are not a proselytising group, and that's very important for me. I know that many people will disagree but I think we have to embrace any movement at all towards a vegan ideal - even Meat-free Mondays and the like. I think that a lot of people who are interested in veganism - but don't know enough, or don't have a network of support - can be very alienated by vegan preaching and self-righteousness.
I try and remember that we all started somewhere - and most of us didn't have the privilege of guiding vegan parents... it's a learning curve, and for it to flourish in the right direction, it needs kindness, support and non-judgemental encouragement. Everyone is welcome to 3VV events, indeed we prefer it when omnivores attend in force because they are the ones most in need of vegan love and yummy food!
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. 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.
You are such a talented artist Andrew, is there a reason you decided to study Biology rather than art?
That's very kind of you to say. I was always equally interested in art and biology/nature, always combined the two in my own ways... I studied both subjects up to A-level and, although it sounds odd to me now, I actually decided which to study at uni based primarily on the people I was with. The art class seemed so competitive and rather pretentious, and I just couldn't imagine myself fitting in at art college. I have wondered if I made the right decision at the time, what may have happened if I'd taken a different path, but I don't have regrets and I really believe that everything is as it could only be. Studying biology enabled my participation in various conservation projects and eventually led me to be a teacher in my late twenties and then to my current job - Study Coach with dyslexic university students. I've always enjoyed teaching, disseminating knowledge, and I always carried on painting as a hobby. I'm actually changing focus again and plan to concentrate on art for the next few years, I'll see what happens - it's exciting.
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. I have done a lot of conservation work – especially with sea turtles in Greece and Costa Rica – and that has inspired and engaged me greatly.
Please tell us more about the kind of voluntary work you have done, and why it is so important to you.
I've done a lot of voluntary work over the years, I think it's very important to dedicate time and energy to something bigger than myself. Much of my volunteer work has been with wildlife, something that I've always been moved by and fascinated with. In my twenties, all I really wanted to do was travel and be involved in wildlife conservation. I didn't have endless amounts of money so I'd get a temporary job, in a call centre or wherever, for 6 months or a year, and save up. Then I'd find a volunteer project to be involved with and go out there and help until the money ran out. I ended up working a lot with sea turtles in Costa Rica and in Greece, and I also managed to get to Peru, Madagascar, South Africa, Tasmania, India, Canada... looking back on it all now, I'm so glad I did this when I was younger, and had fewer responsibilities.
The worst statistic I've heard in recent years is that wildlife populations across the world halved between 1995 and 2015... species that were considered common or 'safe' when I first learnt about them are now on the endangered list. We are careering towards the next mass extinction of megafauna and it should be the most important thing on the agenda of world politics, but it seems to be a very low priority for most of the people in positions to make big positive changes. Obviously, promoting veganism is a major force in mitigating humanity's catastrophic relationship with other species - but even veganism is often so involved in cats and dogs, cows and pigs, that wildlife is forgotten about. I think we often choose to believe that wild animals are taking care of themselves, away from humans, but the reality is that there is very little wilderness left and in most hierarchies of care, wild animals are the least regarded and the most in need of help.
I no longer have the luxury of months of freedom to travel, so I devote time to caring for the wildlife on my doorstep. For the last 4 years, I've been very involved with the Toads on Roads project - a nationwide scheme to help prevent toads, frogs and newts from being killed by cars as they migrate to their breeding ponds each spring. It entails wandering around in the evening dark with a torch and a bucket, rescuing amphibians from traffic. It can get quite full on but I look forward to it each March and we've got a good team of toaders in my area.
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 judgmental 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.
Find out more about Andrew's work with 3 Valley Vegans here
See more of Andrew's incredible work on facebook here
See more of Andrew's incredible work on this website here
Find out more about Toads on the Road projects all over the country here
Adapted with permission from Animalistauntamed article.