Thursday, June 22, 2017

Yerf finds #2 - Tracy Butler’s early art

Besides of Ailah the other artist who immediately comes to my mind when I think of Yerf is Tracy Butler, whose style and works at the time were in fact much more representative of the site’s general artistic goals. Butler later went on to a professional career as the creator of the successful comic series Lackadaisy. As of today she no longer considers herself a furry artist, which might look odd since the characters of her comics are anthropomorphic animals, but in fact I agree with her statement. I’ll get to that. Let’s start from the beginning.

Most prominent among Butler’s old art is a series of fantasy pictures showing characters and disjointed scenes from an epic fantasy setting. They are too sparse to make any guess about the general plot but there is a variety of easily recognized character types: a young doubt-stricken fox soldier, a goofy rogue-ish dog also enlisted as a soldier, a sassy rogue cat girl, an authoritarian tiger noble, a rebellious bunny concubine, and several others.

The drawings do display a budding sense of composition and dynamic drawing, but the style is still all over the place with some elements taken straight from anime, like the cat girl’s head design:

Other elements are taken straight from classic Disney style or from its early furry fandom iterations (such as the works of Terrie Smith and Robert & Margaret Carspecken), like the expression of the fox in the foreground here:

One of the ideal goals of Yerf was acting as a professional portfolio site for artists who wanted to pitch anthropomorphic fiction ideas for comics or illustrated books: the idea was to have a respectable site with some quality standards so that you could actually link to you personal gallery there when dealing with art directors and they wouldn’t accidentally stumble onto porn or obvious beginner stuff while browsing around. (As naive as this may sound, keep in mind that quality standards for indie productions were much lower in the 90s and early 2000s than they are now, so it was not a completely crazy idea.)

With this in mind, Butler’s early works could look like nothing more than a beginner’s clumsy attempts at making a portfolio and a pitch for a long term comic project, and maybe they were that too - but that’s only half of the story, the surface part. There is something more visceral about these pictures which can only be understood by further putting them in context.

The moment I saw these drawings many years ago I was a beginner artist too, and I immediately recognized a spark of something in them, even though I didn’t care for the particular artist’s style. The disjointed scenes, the evolving character designs, the isolated comic pages illustrating seemingly random moments in the story, the odd mix of Saturday Morning Cartoon cuteness and mature fantasy tropes closer to the artistic vision of Don Bluth. It all felt familiar. I knew where the artist’s ideas were coming from, which kind of spark was prompting her to put them on paper in that disjointed way.

I knew because I had my own comic ideas, and the were exactly like that. There was a vague overall story but the details and even major plot points were changing all the time. The characters I had in mind were a mishmash of styles and archetypes stitched together from anime, fantasy games and what I wish Western TV cartoons would have been.

Butler’s early works were not deliberate concept art, but snapshots of her evolving story-oriented inner world, taken as she was exploring it and letting it grow freely rather than shaping it in pursuit of a career goal. They are budding imagination seen in the process, with very few filters applied. Nowadays this is among my favorite types of art. I find looking at it as fascinating as watching a young animal move its first steps, and in a way that’s exactly what it is: the product of a still untrained mind learning learning to know itself, its interests and limits, jolting with excitement every time it discovers some new inner working to add to the artist’s developing mental toolbox.

At the core of furry fandom art lies the wish to keep one’s cherished childhood fantasies alive, not frozen in time and locked away, but evolving and growing along. A quote from Van Gogh's letters comes to my mind here:
The best pictures are always those one dreams of when one is smoking a pipe in bed, but which never get done.

But we, I mean we furry artists, we actually escaped that paradox. Artists like Tracy Butler got up from the bed and got those pictures done in all their honest inconsistency.

There are people who notice and appreciate that. I did. I still do.

I suspect that no works involving refined worldbuilding or a consistent storyline will ever nail the feeling of this kind of growing experience, which is also why furry as a genre has a troubled relationship with mainstream tastes. Butler’s early art could never have made it to the mainstream but it is heartily representative of modern furry art.

I’m sure the artist herself is aware of all this. That’s why she doesn’t call Lackadaisy “furry” and doesn’t consider herself a furry artist any more. As mentioned before, I agree. Lackadaisy is a mature and completely self-aware artist’s work and it belongs to a different art world in which the naive qualities of furry art would be out of place. Sometimes an artist’s early ideas can be grown into a consistent story fit for the mainstream world, but in most cases it’s better for them to remain a personal thing - a refuge, an inspiration for things to come. Many artists seem to set them aside completely and keep them as static memories, but being a long time furry artist and knowing how fiercely furry fantasies fight to stay alive I’d be surprised if Butler wasn’t going back to visit her old story world from time to time, still tinkering with details, still discovering new nuances of the characters, still crafting bits of an elusive epic story.

Further links:
Tracy Butler's old art at the Yerf archive

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