To fur, with love

One man's painterly quest to destigmatize the much-maligned furry.

Mark Hutchinson

On an 80-degree day in Williamsburg, Foxwell the Foxcoon—a six-foot-tall furry—rounds the corner at Driggs and North 9th, and dances for the hipsters exiting Buffalo Exchange. This prompts stares and laughter. One woman shouts, “Hey, baby! What’s your number? You got big feet!”

It’s a predictable reaction—exactly the kind Brooklyn artist Jay Van Buren hopes to change with his “Fursuit Portrait Project”: a series of paintings that depict furries in New York, Kansas City and Rotterdam.

The man inside the fox-raccoon suit, Gary Shultz, is the subject of Van Buren’s latest painting. When he’s in full-on furry mode, the 39-year-old programmer from Hell’s Kitchen answers to the name Foxwell. This is Shultz’s eighth year as a furry. He met Van Buren through Queens native and fellow furry Rapid T. Rabbit, whom Van Buren painted last year.

Furries are a group of people who share a common interest in, or identify more closely with, animals. Some furries are “fursuiters,” like Shultz, and wear costumes to represent their animal alter-egos. And though furrydom is often skewed as a fetish (see the episode of CSI titled “Fur and Loathing”), only a small percentage partake in any carnal-furry action.

“I’ve been careful to be respectful,” says Van Buren, who meets with all of his subjects one-on-one and out-of-costume. “I try to paint the person under the suit—what furries call the ‘fursona’.”

Van Buren’s previous work was rooted in anti-Conceptualism— “abstract geometric paintings based on the robes of Obi Wan Kenobi”—but following a debilitating depression, he focused on more concrete subjects: stuffed pigs and teddy bears. Though not a furry himself, Van Buren felt the switch was natural. He started by posting on message boards, and ultimately befriended an initially suspicious Rabbit. He broke through, he says, because “I’m a huge Star Wars nerd. I don’t seem like some slick, exploitative guy from the art world.”

These days, Van Buren has a waiting list. He also hosts live painting sessions where the public can watch him work. “Hipsters will show up for anything if they think it’s gonna be weird,” laughs Van Buren. “Then they see it’s a totally dorktastic dudefest. It’s so earnest and goofy, even the most cynical, artsy-fartsy people melt.”

From a furry’s perspective, Van Buren creates a new lens in which to view themselves. “When I saw my portrait, I could feel it was me wearing the suit, and not somebody else,” says Shultz. “Jay has this way of capturing the true person.”

Van Buren will be painting live on Sat 6 at Jack the Pelican (487 Driggs Ave, Williamsburg, 646-644-6756). For more info, go to jayvanburen.com.