April 27, 2007

Jay Van Buren and the Fursuit Portrait Project

Jay Van Buren and the Fursuit Portrait Project

Maybe we’re jealous of the animals. We’re a little too smart for our own good and we worry all the time. It’s a longing for innocence, an attempt to be a child again. [For furries], these suits create a bubble Disneyland that follows [them] around wherever they are. That’s how they talk: ‘This is me. I am this. This body in front of you: this isn’t me. What I really am is this fantastical creature that I am describing to you.’ . . . They really believe very strongly that they are an animal and not a human.

Jay Van Buren, in a conversation with Open Source on April 22, 2007.

Otin the tiger with his portrait [Jay Van Buren/ Flickr]

Our show on anthropomorphism sparked a comment from Jay Van Buren, a Brooklyn-based artist and web designer who paints portraits of “fursuiters”– people who express an animal alter-ego by wearing full-body animal suits. We called him up to get an artist’s view of this particular brand of anthropomorphism.

Van Buren told us about the world of fursuiters, which is part of a larger subculture of “furries” — people who love, admire, and identify with cartoon-like, humanized animals. Furry fandom, as it’s called, is often dismissed as a bizarre sexual fetish (and yes, some furries do indeed enjoy the idea of having sex in their “fursonas”), but many furries see their interests as something more holistic: a fascination with “anthropomorphic” animals.

Anthropomorphic or ‘humanized’ animals have been with us since the dawn of civilization. From the gods of ancient Egypt to the advertising icons of the modern day, people of every culture have created fanciful creatures simply by imbuing animals with human traits. Only within the last two decades has anthropomorphic or ‘Furry’ fandom been recognized as a distinct fan-base in its own right. Fans are found in all corners of the world, and come from all races and ages and creeds. We are bound together across the most daunting barriers by our mutual admiration for these beasts of myth and legend who, by simple reflection, give us a better window into ourselves.

giza, Just What Is Furry Fandom?, Anthrocon, March 28, 2006.

As Van Buren has witnessed, putting on a fursuit is not only a profound and transformative experience for a furry, but also for an observer. While Van Buren was working on a portrait of a tiger fursuiter, he had a drink at a bar with the man inside the suit. When they finished, the tiger got back into character:

He puts his head back on– and I’m scared for a second! Otin the tiger’s character is very stoic—he’s got a sword, which is a real samaurai sword, by the way. And he’s very straight-up and serious. There’s a total transformation in the way that he acted.

Jay Van Buren, in a conversation with Open Source on April 22, 2007.

Van Buren, who calls himself a “fan of furries,” has painted large, detailed portraits of six furries to-date as part of what he calls the Fursuit Portrait Project. (Along with the tiger, his subjects have included a rabbit, a wolf, and a “fox-coon.”) By painting people in fur suits, he says, he’s tapped into a well of artistic innocence and freshness as well as a rich vein of American anthropomorphic folk art.

These people are very proud of their suits, and they work very hard on them. The tiger guy—his suit looks like a real tiger. They’re happy to see themselves depicted [in my paintings], and they’re happy to have someone taking [their transformation into an animal-person seriously] . . . It’s more this idealized version of an animal, instead of anything having to do with actual nature. We’re living in this postmodern world where there almost is no nature—there’s only culture. So we’re trying to get back some connection with nature, but the only way we can think of is through Bugs Bunny.

Jay Van Buren, in a conversation with Open Source on April 22, 2007.

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  • earlyadopter

    Hey, Jay here, i just wanted to add to this that as an artist its the challenge of trying to really paint both the person inside the suit and the personality of the fursona at once in none painting that attracts me to the subject. Also, i think that in creating these suits, the fursuiters are tapping into something with real mythic power that and that is part of what i’m trying to capture in these paintings too. I’m proud to consider all six of the people i’ve painted so far as my friends, and i’m hoping to go to EuroFurance this fall to see more of the European side of the fandom… oh.. also there’s a whole other part to this which is that a big part of what this project is about which is the absurdity of what I’m doing- The first person i painted, Rappid T Rabbit, videotaped me painting him for his (cable access) TV show, and being videotaped made me think of the performative aspect of what i was doing- putting on my little appron, mixing up the paint, engaging enthusiastically with this totally obsolete technology, for no good reason other than that’s what i love to do. The paintings are painted from life and from close by because its about two people doing something they love to do. More about the project here: http://earlyadopter-j.livejournal.com/743.html

  • plnelson

    Back in 1969, Monty Python, created a sketch called “The Mouse Problem” featuring an underground culture of people who secretly go to private clubs where they dress up like mice, squeak, and eat cheese. The sketch features a grainy video filmed by a “BBC cameraman dressed as a vole”.

  • earlyadopter

    oh, yeah, one other thing… The comment about the Tiger head– the point was really that Otin’s head is very, very realistic. You should see it, its a thing of beauty! I had this fear reaction that was coming from some kind of lizard-brain place like “you’re a tiger! eek!” – Importantly this is somewhat unusual in what i’ve seen — most of the fursuits out there are more cartoon-like than life like- which is what i meant by the comment saying that this phenomenon seems to me like moving toward nature through culture– to nature through bugs bunny in some way. Or to nature through a childlike- lense?

    ON “the mouse problem” i had totally forgotten that sketch- Its really funny. The humor there is the absurdity obvioiusly (like all of Python -bless them)- and for me that is part of the appeal too. I love the idea of doing something that is obviously kind of absurd but just doing it anyway and doing it all the way because you love it.

  • Otin

    First off, I am honored to be the chosen one of the Portrait Brotherhood to be in the limelight. Though out of the group that has been painted, I am by far the youngest (newest) to the Furry community.

    I stumbled across the fandom in June 2005 at Anthrocon (www.Anthrocon.org) in Philadelphia, PA. Now since moved to Pittsburgh. The adventure started from a posting I read on the official Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle website about Peter Laird (Creator of TMNT) attending this “Anthrocon”. Being that this was one of my childhood heros, I had do get his autograph.

    When I arrived at Anthrocon, I was taken totally by surprise in what it was. A long time member of the Furry community introduced himself to me, and asked what my name was. I replied with my “real” name. He then asked me for my “fur” name, replying back I did not have one. Shocked, he asked me if I knew what a “furry” was. I said no. Needless to say the conversation turned into quite an interesting one, which gave me a “crash” course in the furry world.

    Cutting to how I decided on the Tiger Fursuit, was not totally from my imagination. The physical creation of the suit; head, body, clothing, was all mine. I must give credit to the one who inspired me on the character.

    Timothy Albee, creator of “Kaze Ghost Warrior” (www.kazeghostwarrior.com). I met him at Anthrocon, listening to what he had to say, and watching the video of what he showed of Kaze, struck me in a way I will never forget. I was going through some hard times then, and Tim really inspired me in that there is so much more out there to enjoy and do, than your 9 – 5 daily grind. I thank him for that.

    Since then, the tiger “Otin” has been retired, and another “fursona” is being constructed, that more fits my character. And I’m sure as it’s completed, Jay will be giving me a call to be immortalized once again.


  • earlyadopter

    Open Source should really do a whole show about the furry fandom. Its a huge international phenomenon and its growing quickly. There are many people in the fandom with interesting things to say about it, and i’d be curious to hear what any sociologists or other experts might say as far as how this relates to other subcultures both past and present and what its popularity says about modern society in general.

  • earlyadopter

    Since this article was put together, I’ve done 3 more portraits and the project has gotten some other press- a TIme Out New York article and and article in the Kansas City Star