Interview with Humanimals artist, Gayle Weitz

by Hannah West, Vegan Outreach Coordinator, Alliance for Animals

The first time I heard of Humanimals was a couple of weeks ago, when Josh, the co-president of the UW Animal Rights Society, burst into the room where we were having our meeting with a huge smile and a (more than usual) frantically excited demeanor: “OH MY GOD have you seen the super cool art exhibition downstairs in the Union?” Once I finally found the exhibition he was talking about (wait, there’s a Union gallery? are you kidding me? where?) I was so struck by the subject material.

For those who haven’t seen the Humanimals exhibit, here is the summary from the Isthmus:

Humanimals consists of carved and painted human-size figures. Each piece is actually a functional cabinet–head, torso and legs open to reveal collaged interior spaces. The outsides depict common animal idioms used to describe human behavior, such as harebrained, pigheaded or bully. The insides contain information explaining how we (humans) actually treat the animals in the idioms, such as vivisection, pork factory farming and beef factory farming. Do animals really share human traits? Do humans really exhibit animal characteristics? How do these similarities and differences affect how humans view and treat other animals? These are some questions addressed in Humanimals.

As a music education major who is constantly trying to figure out how art can further ideals of social justice, i was absolutely in love with this work. Although the Isthmus and the AFA blog mentioned the exhibit, I couldn’t find an interview with the artist, Dr. Gayle Weitz, anywhere. So I emailed her, and was lucky enough to interview her on the phone, yesterday morning. I don’t have fancy recording devices, so I compiled the summary below from my notes, with very judicious use of quotation marks.

Although currently living in Pennsylvania, Dr. Weitz was born in Madison. She describes herself as coming from an “animal loving family,” where she’d always had pets and pets were considered part of the family. She credits two maternal aunts, in particular, one of whom is a current member of AFA, and a fellow student, for raising her consciousness about animal rights as a UW graduate student in the late 1980s. Guess who else helped raise consciousness? Alliance for Animals! Dr. Weitz’s first experience with animal activism was protesting vivisection on campus, and when Neal Barnard came to town to speak on the subject, she attended the potluck that AFA held for him, and became a member.

When asked how she came to choose art as her method of activism, Dr. Weitz explains that she is an “activist at heart”, who tries to “alleviate unnecessary suffering wherever it occurs” – in the environment, among humans, or among animals. As a grad student in art education, she became passionate about discovering the “potential of visual imagery as a tool of activism”. I was fortunate enough to hear about some of her upcoming works, all in a similar cabinet style, and all engaging with important issues. One addresses the five major killers (heart disease, stroke, etc.) and the steps that can be taken to prevent them, and one uncovers the exploitation of workers in the garment industry.

Dr. Weitz currently teaches art education and studio classes at Seton Hill University, a private, Catholic school which is focused on service learning. (How she finds time in her professorial schedule to create this beautiful art is a total mystery!) She says she trains all her art teachers to be social justice educators, and to, (I love this!) “use art as a vehicle for understanding the other and oneself in reference to the other,” whether the other is the environment, other religions, or animals. When we were conversing, she mentioned how many ways there were to become involved in social justice, and in food justice in particular. She cited an NPR program she’d just listened to about “pink slime,” the mass of questionable beef trimmings sold to schools for school lunches, that has caused an uproar among parents and families across the U.S.

What is most impressive to me about Dr. Weitz’s Humanimals project is the broad range of topics. It would have been easy enough to make the project about endangered animals or companion animals, but she engages with the entire system of animal exploitation, from the food industry, to vivisection, to pest control. That is a personally brave thing to do, and I think it makes an impact even on those passersby who just briefly glance at the cabinets.

Throughout the interview, Dr. Weitz expressed her surprise and delight that Alliance for Animals had grown so much. When she was a member in the late 80s, she only remembered there being at most, a couple hundred other members. Now, there are 800 members, and over 1500 subscribed to our mailing list. She called this growth a “wonderful testimony” to the strength of animal activism. With people like Dr. Weitz, aspiring vegan and conscientious social justice advocate, artist, and educator, on our side, it is no wonder that we are so strong, and that our strength and impact continues to grow. Thank you, Dr. Weitz.

If you haven’t yet seen Humanimals, hurry and see it! The exhibit closes very soon.

Where: Porter Butts Gallery, second floor of Memorial Union, 800 Langdon St.

When: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily through March 21

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