In tune with nature: ‘Beef Jerky’ performer shares her love of costuming with others
Oh, how times have changed.
Looking at fursuit photos from furry conventions from the late ’90s and comparing them to what you see today, it’s clear that the face of costuming in the anthropomorphic fandom has changed dramatically in a little more than a decade.
A simple search on Google will bring up more than 40 different fursuit makers who have established a business of creating personalized anthropomorphic animal costumes, with a significant number of them charging in excess of $2,000 for a fullsuit.
In this day and age, it’s understandably commonplace for builders to keep their secrets to themselves, most of which have been discovered by old-fashioned trial and error as well as years of hard work, honing their craft.
Not for Sara Howard, the August 2012 Featured Fursuiter of the Month, however.
Howard, who lives in Oak Harbor, Washington – located on Whidbey Island about two hours north of Seattle – has helped countless fursuit builders achieve their dream of creating a costume on their own through the free online tutorials on her website, www.matrices.net.
In the past 11 years, her site has received nearly 350,000 hits, with a high percentage of those going to her tutorial page, which covers virtually all aspects of suit-making in detail.
Complete with photos, the tutorials cover everything from foaming and furring a costume head to building a tail or paws.
“I wouldn’t even know where to begin to estimate (the hours),” said Howard, when asked how much time it took to compile all the information in her tutorials. “It literally has been years in development. I try to go in and revise some of the content as I learn new techniques.”
Although Howard is highly regarded in the fursuiting community today for her contributions, like many of her colleagues, she got her start with ‘furry’ characters, and her love of costuming, at a young age.
FROM PETZ TO PAPER-MACHE
Having drawn cartoon animals since she was four years old, Howard was a big fan of the video game Petz as a pre-teen, where players adopt, raise and care for virtual dogs and cats.
“People started roleplaying as dogs, wolves and other animals,” Howard recalled. “The first character I made was Mukilteo. He was an orange and yellow dog-creature, and we used to roleplay this wolfpack scenario.”
Mukilteo, who takes his name from a city of Snohomish Indian origin about half an hour north of Seattle, was Howard’s first character.
A little while later, she came across the furry art site Yerf, drawing inspiration from the characters she saw there.
“None of us were able to get into Yerf at that age,” she laughed, “but we’d draw our own based off of what people were posting. That was really the beginning of how we found furry art.”
As much fun as she was having roleplaying as Mukilteo, Howard decided to make her own personal female character. Around the same time, she had fallen in love with the blockbuster hit “The Matrix,” which had just come out in theaters in 1999.
Enthused with the film’s overarching question “What is the Matrix?”, she looked the word’s plural, Matrices, in the dictionary and liked what she found.
“It said, ‘that in which anything develops, takes shape or is contained,’ which I thought was really creative,” Howard said, adding that it was a big deal back then to have a one-word username. “I really didn’t think that name would stick. I kind of think it’s a dumb name at this point, but it’s stuck now (laughs).”
Also in the late ’90s, Howard started her tradition of building Halloween costumes every year, and many of her early ones weren’t made from foam or fur, but something much simpler.
“When I first started making costumes, I was making them out of paper-mache for Halloween,” she explained. “I’d try to outdo myself every year.”
She would post photos of her costumes online and get many positive comments, as well as questions on the techniques she used.
Around that time, Howard realized that there was very little in the way of instruction or tutorials for costume builders online.
That’s when she decided to do something about it.
TECHNIQUES AND TUTORIALS
With enough material currently on her fursuit building tutorials to write a small book on the subject, it took a moment for Howard to think back on the early days of Matrices.net and what spurned her to undertake such an extensive project.
“Most of it was because people kept asking me questions about how I did it,” she explained. “I started writing really involved emails back to people, and I thought, ‘I really should put this on my website.’”
Howard said that at the time, about the only resources available online were by (September 2011 Featured Fursuiter) Nicodemus, and the fursuit.org mailing list, which was primarily text-based.
Having just received a new digital camera, she “took pictures of literally everything,” and set to work compiling her old email conversations and information.
Today, the costuming section of her webpage features 23 separate tutorials, which includes four video lessons on shaving fur, sculpting claws, attaching a fursuit nose and foaming a costume head.
Although some of her tutorials are geared towards advanced techniques such as building digitigrade legs, the vast majority of her lessons are meant for the novice builder looking for ways to get started and unleash their creativity.
“There’s way too many people out there that don’t have a costume and don’t know where to get started,” Howard said, noting that she tries to break a complex subject down into the simplest of aspects. “It just takes a few steps, and a few materials. You can make it out of inexpensive stuff if you’re on a hobbyist level, or you can make it out of really expensive stuff if you want to make a really nice costume that will last a long time.”
Over the years, Howard has gotten plenty of positive feedback from her tutorials, but not necessarily from people one would expect.
“A lot of people outside of the fandom have found my website, and they’re making costumes for school plays, or maybe for their kids for Halloween,” Howard admitted. “They’re not making furry characters, they’re making other items, and some of the things they make are really creative.”
Aside from the few that request that Howard “hold their hand” through the entire costume development process, she said that she loves to hear from people that have used her lessons to craft something special.
“(They) make it on their own, share a picture, and it’s the most spectacular thing,” Howard beamed. “You can’t even tell they used the tutorial because they put their own mind, and their own ideas, to it… I’ll share other links with them like the Fursuit LiveJournal, to try to encourage them to keep going.”
As a performer, Howard came up with her signature character, Beef Jerky, in 2006 – citing her love for huskies and their playful, derpy traits.
“I wanted to make a silly, no-strings-attached character, something goofy that isn’t necessarily me, but was going to be fun to play,” she said. “I wanted a dog character that embodied a lot of the silly Husky traits, being easily distracted, running off, getting into stuff, and being the attention whore that a husky is.”
Just prior to the Further Confusion Masquerade in 2011, Howard decided to make a new build of Beef Jerky, constructing a new body suit, feetpaws, handpaws and head to replace the lower-quality fur she used in 2006.
Low and behold, she won first place at the Masquerade in the “Journeyman” division.
“I had a cute little skit where we washed Beef Jerky and he came out as a new costume, fluffier,” she recalled. “I always believe nothing’s really finished. It’s always something I can work on and improve.”
Another one of Howard’s favorite fursuit pastimes is to head to locations of natural beauty – of which there are many in her native Pacific Northwest – and take photos in costume.
While she lives only a few miles from Deception Pass, one of Washington State’s busiest and most beautiful state parks with a combined 50 miles of forest trails and shoreline, her favorite of such adventures was a recent trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado.
“We went four-wheeling up in the mountains, and I threw my costume in the back,” Howard said, adding the view from the top was breathtaking. “We stopped, pulled over to the side of the road, put on our costumes and took spectacular photos.”
Along with much of the surrounding area, that ridge, located on a road that led to the Garden of the Gods, ended up being destroyed in the Colorado wildfires earlier this summer.
“It’s not going to look like that again for at least another 100 years,” Howard said. “But I like taking my costumes places and getting pictures with them outside, rather than in a dreary hotel room or something.”
AN ‘AWE-INSPIRING’ FANDOM
Outside of fursuit performing and creating costumes, Howard has two very important dogs in her life, her adopted husky Turbo – and her boyfriend Mike, who has a blue Malamute character and goes by Malameux in the fandom.
Howard says that one of her favorite things to do is dog training, and she is proud of the work she’s done with Turbo, who had been in three other homes before Howard picked him up in 2009.
“He is the coolest dog and he knows about a million tricks,” Howard said, adding that it was a challenge to break Turbo’s mischievous streak at first. “When he came to us, he didn’t know anything, he really didn’t even know his name. It was pretty much an accomplishment to teach him so many things in the time I’ve had him.”
She also enjoys photography, gardening and collecting and playing old videogame consoles – although the latter hobby has curtailed considerably since she got dogs.
“I’m sure they like the attention rather than the video games,” Howard laughed.
The 28-year-old said that she is planning to attend Rainfurrest at the end of September, and will also be at Further Confusion and VancouFur in January and March of 2013, respectively. Formerly a staff member and panel host at Conifur Northwest, a Seattle-area convention that ended in 2005, she hopes to continue teaching a variety of fursuit-building panels as she has done in the past.
Howard is also a member of NorthSound Costuming, a local group of artists that collaborate and bounce ideas off of each other.
“We’ll do craft nights together, not necessarily 100 percent furry-related, we do all kinds of stuff,” Howard explained, noting that the group displayed some of their creations in the Anthrocon art show last June. “It’s about getting together and having other people to critique your work. We each bring our own projects and get to work on them and say “how’s this looking,” more that kind of thing.”
As a costume maker as well as a fursuiter, Howard said that the sheer amount of originality found in the fandom among her peers is unlike anything she ever seen.
“It’s obviously topical to anthropormorphic animals, but the ideas that come from that – all the costume ideas, the illustrations, the stories, all those sorts of aspects, of course music as well, everybody’s so creative,” Howard said. “It’s almost like, although I myself am creative, there’s the looming factor of ‘so is everybody else.’ It’s awe-inspiring.”
Additional Q & A with Sara “Matrices” Howard
Q: In addition to building costumes, you’re also huge into fursuit props. Can you talk about how props can be used to enhance the performance of a character?
A: Oh, my God, I love props so much! You see so many characters that don’t have something that draws the audience in. It’s so much fun to have a prop, because you can use that item to interact with the audience. It’s not just you trying to think of ideas on your own – you already have your idea in your hand like a giant ham or steak, something you can pretend to eat or play catch with your friends. It’s a way you can interact with another person that maybe doesn’t have a prop. With a character like Beef Jerky, whose name is a food name, of course it’d go well.
I like to make food props the most, but I’ve made other things to that relate to the convention theme. When Rainfurrest had their “Zombie” theme (in 2010), I made a big crowbar…. and for last year’s Rainfurrest I made a marshmallow on a stick, and it had a hot dog that went with it.
Q: What was your most memorable fursuiting experience?
A: It was Folklife (festival, in Seattle) several years ago. I got a really cute picture of Beef Jerky, my friend Maly was dressed up in her costume Klickitat. We were taking turns because we were the only two (fursuiters) that were there. At Folklife, there’s just so many people! It was so much fun… we had gotten so many hugs that day. We changed in the bathroom and came out as our characters, and we didn’t make it very far. The kids there were so excited to see big furry characters. That was a lot of fun, really memorable.
Q: Many of the costumes you’ve made in the past now have new owners, what are one or two of your favorites from that group?
A: A long time ago I made an Akita, I made it originally for my boyfriend. He was really cool, he was meant to be a gruff, unhuggable character named Mangle. (Frostbite Fox) owns him now, and I believe the character’s name is now Dai. That’s probably one of my favorite costumes I’ve made in the past.
Also, Treever, the black lab. He was meant to be a mad scientist, and he went to one of my best friends. The person who owns him now takes him skiing in Colorado, and it’s so cool to see pictures of that. I made that mask in 2004, before Beef Jerky, and it’s still holding up.
Q: What advice can you give to those who are just starting out with costume making?
A: I hope people go out there and build their costumes, and don’t be shy about trying. If you don’t try, you’ll never know if you’ll succeed. So many things need practice, so keep trying. There are people that will be discouraged if they get constructive criticism that is a little too harsh, but it’s not altogether a bad thing. It helps us improve, and do better than our prior construction effort. It’s hard to learn new techniques without trial and error, and finding out for yourself. I’m really proud that others are willing to share information, especially with newer makers. You don’t know how creative a person can be with a tiny bit of information.
Editor’s note: The FNN Featured Fursuiter of the Month is a bi-monthly profile series written by Kijani. Every other month he will choose one well-recognized figure in the fandom’s fursuiting community, offering a “behind the mask” look at their characters, how they found fursuiting/furry fandom and what makes them unique as well as a snapshot of their lives outside the fandom.
The next feature will be released in October 2012.