Vegan Life talks to Mavis Harris about the message behind her humorous vegetable-based art
What drives you to create this kind of art? What do you aim to achieve with it?
Having spent many years studying our food industry, seeing the change in our population (obesity, rampant heart disease, epidemic rates of cancer and diabetes, attention deficit disorder and many more) and becoming a mother, I knew I had to find a way to help change our path. We all can help change things, whatever those things that bother us maybe. You don’t necessarily have to be wealthy, powerful or famous. You just have to be willing to get in there and try. I’m an artist. That is my tool. Gentle humour and bright colours conveying a sweetly subversive message — when in doubt add a carrot. Surprisingly, this advice works for most situations, culinary and otherwise.
Has art always been a passion of yours? Have you always done this ‘vegan’ art?
I would say that curiosity and creativity have always been a part of my character. Each voice in our home was encouraged to not only speak boldly, but listen respectfully. And many of those voices were artists. I’ve often thought our home was quite like a wonderfully overgrown garden with peacocks, painters and peonies all thrown higgledy-piggledy together. Inevitably there was a great deal of cross pollination. Curiosity and creativity thrived.
Originally I wanted to pursue a career in the diplomatic arts. I have wandered through the performing arts, culinary arts (with occasional detours into the medical arts) and landed in the realm of the visual arts.
My love of botanical art began in a somewhat roundabout manner. My sweet — but rather inexperienced with children — stepmother, when having to deal with a rambunctious 7 year old girl, would offer me a simple choice; scrub the pots or draw the trees and plants that were everywhere. Mostly I chose to draw though I must admit that occasionally scrubbing pots had its charms. She was a classically trained artist from Paris and thought to instil those same lessons in me. “Does that leaf truly resemble the one you drew? No. Draw it again please.” was the mantra of many an afternoon.
What inspired you to go vegan?
Food has always been a very important part of my life. Growing up on a farm we grew a bit, canned and preserved a lot and would never dream of eating prepared food. We ate meat but my father insisted on humanely raising our livestock and butchering it ourselves. Respect and gratitude was a large part of our food lives. Both my parents were epicureans [loved food] and as a result I was exposed to food from many cultures. I found that I naturally gravitated towards a vegetarian palate. Nothing is quite as fulfilling as a lentil stew with mushrooms, chopped spinach and a crusty loaf of bread to dip in it. In my early 20’s I began learning about factory farming. Few things are as sickening in every way imaginable. I believe that if more people knew the truth behind the burger on their plate they would not/ could not eat it. The more I learned about our food system, its production, processing, marketing and the resulting slow poisoning of the population that eats it, the more revolted I became.
I could stand on a mile high soapbox ranting for pages but I won’t. Instead I create art that I hope will sway people away from this sick meat feast and towards a grain and vegetable diet.
In my picture book I am including easy, economical recipes that encourage the family to eat and cook together. Activities that make it fun to eat vegetables. There is nothing quite like a rousing game of table soccer with garden peas to lighten the mood around the dinner table. Planting the seeds from what you have just eaten will make shopping a lot more interesting for the children. My daughter currently has an orange tree, two lime trees and a small grove of lychee trees.
A vegan diet is simply better for us and the planet. As a culinary artist who has spent 25 years in the food industry it is a creative adventure I adore and love to share.
Tell us about some of your artworks in more detail.
One of my favourite pieces is the Play Date. The plight of the bees is such a big issue and one very dear to my heart. I live on a little dirt road called Beehive. Two hundred years ago there were 200 beehives here; now there are just two. I so love to watch them buzz among the flowers — they greet each blossom with such enthusiasm.
In the Play Date a carrot and a bee meet up for a playdate. Their parents greet each other with gentle smiles while the little ones brim with the enthusiasm I see in the bees all around me as they plunge head first into flower after flower. I can remember all the playdates of my daughter’s early years. Playdates are one of the things that make childhood magical.
Another favourite of mine is The Halloween Parade. Every Halloween we go to march in the village parade. And every year we run a little late and spend a bit too long stressing and searching for a good spot to park. One year I muttered to myself that I wished we could fly in on a dragon. My daughter did the most marvellous sketch of Duncan the Dragon with the Joyous Garden gang riding on his back. She is my editor and will frequently help me with ideas but this one was so outrageous I nearly piddled myself laughing! I especially love the pumpkin helmet Duncan is wearing.
What’s your favourite piece of art that you’ve produced?
My favourite piece would have to be The Four Seasons set. Finding that one activity that exactly caught each season was a magical journey. I strolled through all my best memories from my youth on a farm to my daughter’s recent escapades. I think I smiled from the start of the first sketch to the last stroke of the brush.
What feedback do you receive about your art?
The feedback I receive has always been totally positive. I love to watch people at openings as they stand in front of my work and laugh. I’ve seen others quietly sit and stare at the images and can see the stress and tension slip from their shoulders. Others tell me they wait for my daily Instagram posts as it makes them smile. This feedback has meant the world to me and I wish all those people could know how deeply their joy has inspired me.
The beauty of art is the individual voice of each artist communicating their thoughts on a universal theme. My voice happens to be of a gentle, humorous nature, which can be a very powerful tool. It’s all about changing someone’s perspective.
I want people to connect the thought of vegetables with simple joy, that when they pass the carrots in the market their kids say “Look, mummy, it’s Carson Carrot! Can we get some?”.
How would you describe your artistic style?
Oh, if I only knew the answer to that question! My work doesn’t fit into any particular and familiar style. It could as well be labelled Surreal, Fantasy, Botanical, Children’s or any weird mix of those and probably a few more! The actual process is based on classical botanical rendering. Each image begins with a detailed rendering in graphite followed by a layer done in Albrecht Durer watercolour pencils. Next I work in watercolour and shellac based inks.
The final steps are an outlining using an ultra-fine Coptic pen and Sennelier pastels for sky and water. The result is a deep and lushly coloured image like a peach in full ripeness.
What are your strongest passions in life?
My strongest passion in life is Life. Life is exciting when you are excited. However I am particularly passionate about food, where it comes from, how it is prepared and how it affects us. So many people have lost touch with what they eat through simple ignorance. We all want to eat well and be healthy but it has seemingly become so mysterious, complex and expensive a process that we
give up and reach for the prepared junk. I am passionate about showing people (especially young families) how easy, inexpensive and simple it really is to eat well.
Who are your favourite artists/ who inspires you?
My favourite artists tend to be literary. Terry Pratchett has been a huge influence as has L Frank Baum (author of the Oz books). One of my all-time favourite works is The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay. Brilliant, absolutely brilliant! I have a penchant for the absurd, the gentle and happy endings.
My inspiration comes more than anything else from cosmology and physics. That may sound a bit odd but in the outrageous world of quantum mechanics my imagination takes flight. I tend to listen to the Feynman lectures, Brian Greene or Brian Cox while drawing. Somehow the combination of our strange universe where, at least on the quantum level, all things are possible and my love of gardening set my creative juices off on wonderful adventures. As Michio Kaku said “Common sense has no place in the quantum world.”
Anything else you’d like to add?
Life is exciting when you are excited! Don’t let anyone or anything take that spark out of you.