“I always end up back at the Earth”: Interview with Vegan Illustrator Matt Gauck

Vegan always wins...
Vegan always wins…

It is funny how you meet certain people. We all have those stories of randomly connecting with someone who, in short order, feels like an old friend.

This is certainly true for me when it comes to Matt Gauck, an impressively interesting and creative nomadic vegan illustrator (or “drawist,” as he puts it) wandering the world (mostly on two wheels) with a home base in Portland, Oregon. Since getting in touch with Matt for some logo work for an event (Vegan Night Out) and a non-profit organization (Triangle Chance for All), I have had the good fortune to trade many an e-mail with Matt that left me laughing and feeling good to know that someone out there was doing something interesting.

Matt’s artwork is often humorous and always thought-provoking, with a deep core of environmental awareness coupled with a keen attention to the most pressing social issues of our time. While much of it is dark, with a rather morbid sense of humor (which I love) and a healthy dose of metal, Matt’s art is as varied as the situations our planet and its passengers face today.

You can check out Matt’s artwork at Cargo Collective, and you can learn about and support his upcoming bike tour/book tour/story-gathering tour by donating to his Indiegogo campaign.

How long have you been vegan, and what motivated you to cut animal products out of your life?

Well, my official jump to veganism happened about six years ago, right when I moved to Portland. I had been vegetarian for a long time before that, like seven or eight years, and I was super into dumpster diving from 2002 through about 2007. When I say “really into” I mean I literally didn’t buy almost any food at all; and I would only buy vegan food, even though I didn’t consider myself vegan at the time. Even from the beginning I had more of a problem with the money side of the industries of exploitation, and wanted to avoid putting any money into that market. Anyway, when I moved out here (to Portland) I found that dumpster diving is way less of a possibility for a variety of reasons, and I finally started putting my money into the vegan industry, and went vegan. I also read Animal Liberation by Peter Singer, closely followed by that collection of essays about the Animal Liberation Front, Terrorists or Freedom Fighters?, that Sue Coe did the cover art for…those helped round out my politics regarding animals.

You have said that you are doing your best to live by the phrase: “How will you live your life so that it doesn’t make a mockery of your values?” How does veganism tie into your overall value system—and putting your values in practice? How about music—has the soundtrack of your life influenced those values and actions as well?

I love that quote. Everybody can learn something from that, no matter what you’re into. Veganism is a huge part of my value system, but that’s still just a stepping stone to me—my main interest is honestly just eating vegetables and simple, whole foods, and supporting small farms, farmer’s markets, and co-ops. I think the logical transition is vegetarian to vegan to farmer to Walden pond or something like that. Self-support, or supporting a small group on a small scale: that’s a great idea and ideal to me. I think the backbone of this quote is responsibility, and then also being fully intentional about all the decisions you make.

As for the music thing, it helps me remember things outside my everyday life—people writing lyrics about issues overseas that are less visible to me, things like that—that keeps me feeling like I can be involved in things beyond my immediate life, which is super important too. I still love the “personal liberation” type of lyric writing the most—the reminder that you can live any kind of life you want to, despite what contemporary culture says about it. Live in the woods, do art for a living, write and travel full time, the idea that desk jobs and careers aren’t mandatory for growing older.

Your illustrations are fantastic in that, besides the artistic skill and aesthetic appeal, they largely pack a powerful punch of social justice and cultural critique—on topics as wide-ranging as overpopulation (the “Vasecretary” poster) and flaccid environmentalism (Contemporary Environmentalism at Work) to the nonsense that is the Paleo diet, along with more personal works. What inspires you to make art, and what idea(l)s and philosophies and issues fuel that work?

Oh man, art… I love making art, and I will always want to draw and paint stuff, but sometimes I honestly have no idea where this stuff comes from. It’s like, well, there are these issues in the world, and some of them are so ridiculous that I have to come up with some way to laugh a little about it. Not that I don’t take it seriously; but I really think that humor, and this “over the top” type of thing really helps people to think about things differently. The same way that satire is an effective way to get an idea across to a differing viewpoint…this is my sort of “visual satire,” as it were. A lot of friends of mine tell me they can see humor in even the most straightforwardly graphic stuff, like a bull goring someone; it’s SO over the top, you have to laugh. I like that reaction.

I do find that my best, and most pointed, work comes from when I have conversations with people I disagree with, and see things I get irritated by. I swear, all I have to do is search “hunting” online, and once I see all those pictures of hunters who have killed huge animals, I have to get that anger out somehow. So, typically, I draw.

What, for you, are the most pressing social issues of our day? How do you approach taking them on—in your artistic creative process and in your daily life?

It’s hard, as I think there are so many that are all intertwined, but overall, I find that the environment, like, the physical Earth itself, and everything human beings have done to it—that seems to be the most important to me. Social justice, class lines, and trying to eliminate capitalism in general—it all means a lot, but somehow I always end up back at the Earth. I can see that awful plastic garbage patch in the ocean in the back of my head. I honestly don’t “think” too much about how I can make art about any particular concept; most of them are just so obvious already in the world, that my brain is already responding to them just by being alive, hearing people talk about these things, seeing ignorance and misinformation spread… Making art is a way of dealing with social problems; they make for the best concepts, since everyone can relate on some level, since all these problems have some overlap. The best art, to me, has a purpose and a clear concept to it. You need something to say before you say it, you know?

Besides your artwork, you do a lot of bike-touring and have been known to go on the road with bands. Would you consider yourself a fairly nomadic person? What about this sort of lifestyle do you find fulfilling and enlightening?

I’ve been super lucky to befriend the right people (which happens when you’re as polite and talkative as I am) and have gotten to tour fairly frequently with some friends in bands, which has been a great way to reinforce the DIY network of people I am friends with all over the planet. My partner, Sara, gave the best description of me, when she called me a “charismatic introvert,” which seems pretty apt. That works into my nomadic disposition—I love getting to see different things, go on hikes in strange places, camp in insane spots; but I really love getting to return home someplace to avoid people for a little while, too. I joke I have a split personality thing happening, which isn’t true, but it’s an accurate way of looking at how I approach life. Travel, meet people, do exciting things, then, hole up, draw stuff, listen to audio books. I make the best of each of the seasons, really. Spring, summer, fall—outside. Winter, early spring—inside. I find the whole of this process very fulfilling, and inspiring.

The bike touring is just a more concentrated approach to getting crazy stories, and having fun out in the world. My bike is like a story generating machine, seriously.

Have you encountered any difficulties as a vegan on the road—such as trouble finding places to eat, run-ins with hostile people, etc.?

So far, nothing too bad—mostly someone offering me food, and then glaring in confusion when I’m like, “Oh, that’s really nice, but I actually don’t eat…” Yeah, that thing. Some guy in Alaska offered me moose burgers, to be cooked IN the parking lot of a Safeway, and I told him I just ate vegetables, and he said, “Oh, man, you one of them “healthies’, then huh?” I love that. There’s always the moment of getting to the only restaurant in some town, only to find that they use chicken stock in everything from the salad to the French fries, at which point, you just deal with it. I’ve eaten A LOT of bagels with peanut butter for dinner on bike tours.

Where are you going next, artistically and personally? And where do you feel the vegan movement NEEDS to be going next to sustain itself and make a real difference in the world?

Next, I’m physically going to ride across the country with my partner, Sara, and writing a giant zine about it. My previous zine efforts are being released as a book this coming June, so it’ll double as a book tour as well. The goal both during and after that is to get a bunch (about 15) paintings together for a show I’m having in November of this year, which means September and October, I’ll just be painting pretty much full time. Keeping in motion helps the ideas coming, so I’m not sure where my life is headed after that, though I’m sure I’ll have ideas in the next couple months.

As for the vegan movement, I’d love to see people becoming more interested in shopping at farmer’s markets, growing their own vegetables, and just using the resources we have available to use wisely. Even just growing herbs in your window sill, or setting up something to catch rainwater, is a move in the right direction. I want the vegan movement to CLEARLY be the movement that is actively interested in saving the world, rather than abstaining from something specific. My goal when I’m older is to live in a self-built (or with friends, realistically) structure, in the woods, with small, sustainable farms on all sides. I’d love to see more vegans getting excited about that idea.

Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!

Totally my pleasure—thanks for asking such good questions, and being part of so many rad organizations.

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Fifteen Years

It is often a difficult task to recall the exact details of a moment or period from our past. No matter how desperately we go in search of lost time, we seem to seek for shadows that disappear when we attempt to shine light on them.

Me with my childhood dog, Bear.
Me with my childhood dog, Bear.

What I can remember of my process of going vegan is that it was an intense, but short, period of reflection on the ethics of what I was eating. As someone who had cared about animals since my youngest days, it had always made sense to me that harming animals was wrong…though I still ate them. I finally realized that the consumption of any animal products, not just meat (I was vegetarian at the time), would or could produce unnecessary suffering. No living being wants to suffer; therefore, causing unnecessary suffering was indefensible.

I made the decision to go vegan on March 6th, 1999, shortly before my spring break as a college sophomore and a week before my twentieth birthday. Afterward, I missed yogurt for a few days, but otherwise there was no anguish or regret for me, nor has there ever been in the ensuing years.

College: Before veganism.
College: Before veganism.
LordBeliar
College: After veganism.

My thirty-fifth birthday is a week away. While the fact that I am in my mid-thirties is still a strange thing to process, that “birthday” seems fairly trivial in comparison to my fifteenth veganniversary. So forget about the birthday celebrations, please…I have never liked them anyway. It feels much more significant for me to commemorate the day I made a conscious choice to live my life, and to relate to the world, based on an ethical principle of ahimsa, or “non-harm.”

Please help me celebrate my fifteenth veganniversary! It is easy to do: just go vegan. Today.

If you need motivation and support, it can be helpful to watch something informative about veganism, such as Vegucated (available on Netflix), and find a good vegan food blog, such as Oh She Glows, and maybe pick up a cool vegan cookbook or two (from the plethora that have been published). You can even join a vegan community online or a vegan Meetup group in your area, or you can take a vegan challenge. You are also welcome to get in touch with me if you have questions or need some direct guidance. I am happy to do it. Whatever it takes for you, please help me celebrate a life that is not fueled by torture, suffering, and death.

It really is not as challenging as it might seem before you do it. One day very soon you will understand this, too. And just imagine what it will feel like, fifteen years from now, when you reflect back on the choice you made long ago to end your role in the system of suffering…

Today is a perfect day to start the journey.