The Artist Within Us – Inspiration for and from the Animals

1. Can you tell us a little bit about who you are?

I’m a photo and video journalist working to make the world a kinder place for animals through digital media. I became vegetarian when I was 8 years old and vegan in college. I’ve worked for organizations including PETA, Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, Berkeley East Bay Humane Society, and Vegan.com. I currently work as a freelance photographer and videographer, producer of bite-sized vegan videos at Vegan Break,and the content director of World of Vegan.

2. What is the inspiration behind your work work?

My inspiration has always come from animals. I am a huge animal lover, and have always been drawn to animals and have felt compelled protect to them. When I was a young I wanted to be a veterinarian because that was the obvious career option in which I could help animals every day. But over time I learned about the tremendous cruelty to animals that goes on in our society, and I realized that I could make a bigger impact and reduce far more suffering by getting involved in animal rights and by inspiring people to embrace more conscious and compassionate eating habits. That’s when I started creating YouTube videos and using social media to reach people all around the world with educational and empowering messages.

3.Is there a piece or work that you have created or done that you are most proud of?  Why?

Last year I began working with a local vegan artist Soo Yeon Jang to create “Draw My Life” videos from the perspective of farmed animals. These types of videos had become tremendously popular on YouTube, and were generally used by YouTube personalities to share their life-before-YouTube stories. We borrowed this concept and filmed an illustrated story of the life of a chicken (and later a pig) in the food industry. These videos hit a chord with the public, because for the first time people who turned away from graphic factory farming videos could witness what happens in the meat industry. The videos ended up reaching over a million viewers, and we received numerous messages from people who became veg after seeing them. As an animal rights filmmaker, that is the most exciting feedback I could ever receive.

4.  Do you believe that art sparks conversation?  What is the conversation that you are sharing through your art?

My mission is to use photography and film to evoke critical thinking and conversation about topics that are too often ignored. Art is a great medium to bring difficult, painful, and controversial topics to the table in a very non-confrontational way. Art is personal. When you look at artwork, you’re seeing a reflection of the thoughts and feelings and experiences of the artist. But as a species, we humans are driven to understand. When we see a canvas painted all-black hanging in a gallery, we immediately want to know what the artist was thinking and trying to convey through that art. Similarly, when someone sees photos of a cow, a pig, and a dog hanging side by side, I hope they will think about the artists intention, and may begin to notice that there is little difference between a pig, a cow, and a dog, and may question why we eat one and not the other.

5.  What led you to become an artist?

There is an artist within each of us. How we write, how we frame the photos we take, how we dress, and how we plate our food—it’s all an expression of our inner creativity. Artists by profession are those who take the time and energy to develop their artistic skills and challenge the right side of their brain. For me, that development started as a child. I was always drawing, sculpting, and creating. As a kid I would go door-to-door selling my paintings and my carved hotel-bathroom soaps. I would tell people “when I grow up, I want to be an artist and a mommy.” Somehow I lost touch with my artistic ambitions during school, as I was so intensely focused on the science and math and grades needed to become a veterinarian. It wasn’t until after college, when I was gifted a camera and began to take up film and photography in my free time, that I once again fell in love with creative expression through art.

6.  What is the most exciting/interesting/ “thing” that has happened through inspiration of your work.

My entire career is a side effect of the creative work I have put out into the world. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I could work full-time helping animals by creating videos and taking photos—but that is what has happened.
In an article by Mark Hawthorne about avoiding activism burnout (which will soon be posted to WorldofVegan.com), he recommends the following:
“Find a Good Fit. One of the best ways to avoid burning out is to match your style of campaigning with your interests and strengths, creating activism that nourishes you.”
That is what I have done through photography and videography, and consequently I have landed in a line of work that uses my interests and strengths in very effective ways to help animals. I work insanely long days but never tire of what I do because it combines my mission to prevent suffering with my passion for creative media.

7.  What other projects have you been a part of?

I’m currently working on videos for Farm Sanctuary, Mercy for Animals, Lighter Culture, and Vegan Cuts that are intended to get people thinking about the food industry and to inspire compassionate choices. I have also worked on projects with PETA (I managed the PETA Pack half-marathon team training program for nearly 5 years), Vegan.com (I helped relaunch the website, wrote hundreds of articles, and produced more than 70 videos), Meaningful Paws, Vegan Outreach, Oakland Veg Week, and more.

8.  Compassion, community, the planet, the people, animals, health and sustainability are what drive Sanctuary Bistro.  How would you say these impact your work?

These tenets are at the root of the work that I do, and they are what drove me to become so passionate about veganism in the first place. I feel very at home at Sanctuary Bistro because of these shared values, and love that Sanctuary Bistro provides a beautiful venue to bring together the community and celebrate health, the planet, and animals.

9.  How does one purchase your work and if I do what happens?

I have four canvas prints on display at Sanctuary Bistro that are available for purchase (50% of the proceeds will benefit one of my favorite organizations, Food Empowerment Project). I am also available to do custom photography and videography projects for individuals, companies, and organizations. I love taking photos of people, animals and vegan food, and making short videos showcasing the work of entrepreneurs, small businesses, and Kickstarter projects.

10. What else do you do?

Sleep! Haha—my work keeps me very busy day and night, but when I have free time I love to go on hikes with my dog Chance, go rafting down Russian River, and go running with teams like the PETA Pack and Team Vegan. I also jump at any opportunity to visit local sanctuaries like Animal Place, Harvest Home, Preetirang, and Farm Sanctuary, and love attending annual events like the National Animal Rights Conference, the Natural Products Expo, and the Farm Sanctuary Hoe Down.

11. You are an incredible blogger, can you share about your blog and what we can gain from reading it, along with a link to your favorite post?

Aw, shucks! Thank you! I love creating content to share with the world. At Vegan Break you’ll find my bite-sized vegan videos. At World of Vegan you’ll find content from myself and a team of amazing contributors about the latest happenings, videos, and recipes in the vegan world. And at my personal website MichelleCehn.com you’ll find an overview of my work and opportunities for collaboration.
Here is a video I made showing a few quick-and-easy vegan breakfast options: http://www.worldofvegan.com/vegan-breakfast-video/

12.  Can you share any amazing facts with us?

In 2014 there were hundreds of vegan cookbooks that came to life and entered the marketplace on Amazon.com. We are entering a very exciting time in history, my friends! A true food revolution is upon us. And it’s so exciting eateries like Sanctuary Bistro at the forefront of this progress.
It’s been a true honor to exhibit my artwork at Sanctuary Bistro, and to be included on the blog. Thank you! And to any readers who made it down this far, I hope to see you at the art opening event!

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  • 1019 Camelia St., Berkeley, CA 94710

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