I recently had the pleasure of meeting Camille DeAngelis “in real life,” as we now say, about a year after we conducted a series of interviews via e-mail for her just published book, A Bright Clean Mind: Veganism for Creative Transformation (Mango Publishing, 2019). It’s an innovative concept to explore — how adopting the vegan way of life impacts creativity.
In this book, Camille presents her own journey toward veganism and creative expression (she has published five novels and two works of nonfiction), and presents the stories of sixteen creators, among whom I’m honored to be part. These are presented as conversations or Q & A’s, which make for fascinating reading.
In addition, Camille offers insights on overcoming obstacles and sticking points as well as a slew of tips and resources for those who want to expand their creativity as well as striving for the vegan ideal. I love this passage:
“If we truly want to grow as artists and as humans, we have to be willing time and again to look for the kinder, more responsible, more loving way, especially when that way is not the convenient one. As artists and innovators, it is our responsibility to offer a reasoned critical response to the dominant culture, and the most fundamental expression of culture is food.”
She then goes on to argue for the specific benefits to creativity and psychological growth afforded by veganism. For someone like myself for whom the vegan way of life has already become second nature, seeing these benefits through fresh eyes is still quite compelling!
A Bright Clean Mind is available wherever books are sold
Here’s more about A Bright Clean Mind from the publisher, followed by my conversation with Camille:
Living a creative life means constantly trying new things: exploring innovative techniques and possibilities, asking “what if?” and letting your curiosity lead you to places you may be afraid to venture. We’re always looking for more efficient, sustainable, and above all joyful ways of living and working — and to a growing number of artists and creative entrepreneurs, a vegan lifestyle offers all that and more.
In this inspiring book, award-winning novelist Camille DeAngelis shares how going vegan unlocked her creative potential, eased her anxiety, and allowed her an unprecedented sense of ease and flow in her writing process. She also interviews sixteen talented vegan artists who discuss why this way of life is ideal for their physical and emotional well-being, is kinder to animals, and much more environmentally sustainable.
Learn more about Camille DeAngelis:
A Conversation with Nava Atlas
Nava Atlas is a visual artist and the author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life as well as many vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, including Vegan Holiday Kitchen and Wild About Greens. She lives with her family in upstate New York.
You’ve written that you were disturbed by meat when you were little and avoided eating it as much as possible. Was your future career as a visual artist and author as apparent as your future vegetarianism?
From a very early age, I remember my first loves were drawing, reading, and writing. I lived for the once-a-week art class and library day as oases in the abject boredom of my early school days. One ray of light was an elementary school teacher who was very big on creative writing, and I discovered the edge of humor I’ve always enjoyed injecting into my writing and artwork.
At home, I was always drawing. Often, my drawing had elements of text in it—a foreshadowing of my interest in creating limited-edition artist’s books as well as illustrating my early cookbooks. I was also an avid writer of letters to people. Long and hilarious, with drawings in them. Remember letters? Does anyone ever write them any longer? I think that’s a very sad loss, but much as I long for the lost art of letter writing, I can’t see that ever returning.
When I was young and even in college, much as I adored books and was a voracious reader, I don’t think I saw myself as an aspiring author; I saw myself as more of an artist and illustrator. I’m disappointed that I’ve trailed off from drawing. I now do a lot of my visual work digitally. But I do hope to get back to it soon!
Tell us about illustrating and publishing your first cookbook, Vegetariana: A Rich Harvest of Wit, Lore and Recipes, in 1984. How did you conceive of the project? What were your favorite parts of the process?
That was quite an experience. It came about at a time when I was a struggling young freelance illustrator and graphic designer in NYC. My husband, also a “starving artist,” loved the meals I made at home. He had always aspired to be a vegetarian and was happy that, as a non-cook, he had married one! He kept asking me to write down what I cooked so that I could make it again. Since I’d been cooking for myself since high school, when I became the first vegetarian in my family, this wasn’t a daunting task.
After some time, I had amassed a number of recipes and got the idea of combining my skills in illustration and graphic design with my love for cooking and literature. I collected quotes and folklore about food, both general and specific, as the basis of the illustrations in Vegetariana. I would say that I loved that whole process—researching the quotes and folklore, mostly at the main library in NYC, illustrating them, and creating the recipes. It was all of a piece, and with my “beginner’s mind,” it was all very pleasurable.
In any case, long story short…through a few synchronous events, including finding agents and just the right editor, it didn’t take too long to get it published. It was successful out of the gate. There weren’t that many vegetarian cookbooks out at the time, unlike today when there are a zillion vegan cookbooks on the market.
I was so naive about the publishing business that it was laughable, but the publication of Vegetariana set me on an unexpected path of cookbook author.
Interestingly, I’ve thought about doing an updated edition of Vegetariana (I would take out the dairy and eggs) from time to time. I’ve noticed that most of the literary quotes in the book are by male authors (which annoys me about myself!), and now I would include a lot more women. And also, the print quality of the book has never been good. The drawings are a lot more detailed and delicate. Do you think I should do an updated edition?
YES! Because as many veg*n cookbooks as there are on the market now, there’s still nothing like Vegetariana: its beautiful illustrations and literary flavor give it a storybook feel, whereas most traditional cookbooks are too product oriented to remind us that we are each a part of a longstanding movement.
And from an artistic standpoint, it’s a perfect marriage of interests—that’s how all those hours of drawing and research and recipe development could be so deeply enjoyable. I’d love to hear how you respond to young artists who might be so bent on creating something new and exciting that their ambition may be blocking their flow.
I live near a state university (SUNY New Paltz), and last spring semester I had an intern. My most frequent advice to her was to fail often, and to fail hard. In school and in all our endeavors (especially women, I think), we’re trained to try to be perfect on the first go. But it doesn’t work that way and if anything makes us seize up and become self-conscious.
Most often, I need to allow myself a false start or two or three on a particular project, because with each attempt I get closer to the heart of what I really want to express. It rarely happens on the first try, even after all these years!
And young creatives also need to allow themselves a few spectacular failures. I think we learn more from those than from our successes. Most people won’t see our failures, in any case, but they’ll be there for us to learn and grow from.
Female artists absolutely have to work harder to override their perfectionism. Let’s talk about Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife, your satirical vintage recipe book. (To give my readers a taste, I laughed out loud at the last two ingredients in your “Grounds-for-Divorce Meat Loaves”: “bizarre vegetable garnishes” and “two mediocre attorneys.”)
How do you work that paradox of using midcentury recipes and women’s magazines to create feminist art?
Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife came about at a time when several friends of mine were going through divorces. They’d tell me their tales of woe, and I fashioned them into “recipes” about relationships. I had used midcentury images in other artworks of that time period, notably the artist’s book Sluts and Studs.
There’s something so iconic about midcentury American images. They delineate not only entrenched gender roles, but also draw a line between “good girls” and “bad girls”—the happy housewives and the femmes fatales. These images didn’t hold up a mirror to society, rather, they set the narrative, giving women narrow parameters for what their lives could possibly be. And 99% of the time, no matter what role they were depicted in, women in midcentury media were white.
What Secret Recipes speaks to is how women in heteronormative relationships are still so accommodating. We swear that we won’t fall into society’s prescribed gender roles (as depicted in “Gender Role Casserole”), but soon after the “I do’s”—we do! Same-sex couples have had to figure out a different way to navigate family life. It seems like it’s still a quandary for straight couples. Though it has gotten somewhat better, women today still shoulder the lion’s share of childrearing and domestic duties.
With the irony and dark humor in my work, I’m asking questions. I would never pretend to have answers.
The midcentury imagery of women in narrow roles segues perfectly to my more recent series, Deconstructing Elsie, which uses midcentury Elsie the Cow ads to explore the intersection of patriarchy and animal oppression.
It’s only been in the last couple years that I can look at my vintage knitting patterns and favorite black-and-white films and see right away how white and classist and heteronormative it all is. Noticing the connection between patriarchal values and animal exploitation is a similar process of waking up.
How do you see yourself growing from here?
Going, or growing, forward, I still feel like I have a lot to do and a lot to accomplish. I want to celebrate women’s voices in visual books and with my growing website, Literary Ladies’ Guide. I want to continue to be part of the growing global vegan community, which is so intersectional when it comes to human, environmental, and animal justice issues.
I’m looking forward to my next cookbook, 5-Ingredient Vegan, coming out in the fall of 2019—it’s very much a “vegan 101” kind of book for people who are busy, lazy, or beginners. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to pursue my passions and follow my curiosity, but one can never grow complacent. There’s always a learning curve, and it sometimes feels steep, but just coasting along would make for a very dull life!