Zelaphas brings a notable sense of professionalism and business acumen to the furry fandom. She has turned her hobby into her brand, making use of her experience in business analytics to find out what works and grow her business. Her art combines aspects of gothic horror with fairy tales and high fantasy, and often includes biting satire or political philosophy that makes for a potent combination.
ZOION | Thanks for taking the time to chat. Since you work with both fantasy themes and anthropomorphism, I’d like to start with how much you see yourself as a part of the furry fandom. Do you consider yourself to be a furry? Or just an artist who works with furry themes?
ZELAPHAS | It’s funny, that should be such a simple yes or no question and yet culturally it has so much baggage on it. Today on the internet at least, I’m increasingly comfortable saying, “Yeah, I’m involved in the furry fandom”. I have a genuine interest in the arts and the storytelling behind it. So you could call me a furry.
But that’s just relatively recently. Previously there was so much stigma around it that I was constantly “in the fandom, out of the fandom”, back and forth. It just took a long time for me to realize in the end that most people don’t care. In fact most people are secretly interested!
It wasn’t until 2002 when Deviant Art launched that I discovered that furry was even a thing. Some people there had their own custom animal designs and characters. I thought it was an awesome concept. I was horrible at drawing people, and you know when you’re an angsty teenager and want to represent all the drama in your life in some way, you have this sort of metaphor for yourself to draw yourself in all these different scenarios.
ZOION | Although you’ve been exploring anthropomorphism since 2002, your work in the furry fandom specifically has been more recent. When you started working in the fandom, did you feel more that you needed to have a character?
ZELAPHAS | Sure! In 2009—before hyenas were cool—was roughly when The Golden Compass movie came out. The concept in that story and movie is that there’s a parallel universe where peoples’ souls don’t exist inside of their bodies; they exist outside of their bodies and are called daemons. That’s sort of like your totem animal.
I was totally geeking out over this concept. I absolutely loved it. There were all these online quizzes at the time to discover what your daemon is, and I did dozens of them. They settled mostly on hyenas and I really liked the idea of a hyena too. I did some research and I discovered the striped hyena which I hadn’t been aware of before. And the personality just seemed to fit.
ZOION | You mentioned that you started posting on Deviant Art, and now you have your own website at zelaphas.com. Do you also post art on popular furry websites?
ZELAPHAS | I had a Fur Affinity account years ago. I had stopped using it, but when I got back into the fandom and tried to get commissions, it was going very slowly. So I kind of came back to Fur Affinity. Plus so many people kept asking, “what’s your FA?” so I created a new one.
But to really solidify my brand I have my own website. You kind of have to have your own website, even if that’s not your main driver of traffic. You just need that home base for yourself.
A lot professional artists are on Instagram or Twitter, or they might have a Facebook page too. So I’m covering all of those bases. I use tools like Hoot Suite to autopost to all those social media things.
I do a lot of tracking now—that comes from my business career tracking analytics. I’ve been keeping careful analytics for my business and my sales. When I was starting out again I gave everything a fair shot. I promoted on Twitter, Facebook, Telegram, Furaffinity, Reddit. Then over the past year I’ve seen what’s brought in traffic or not, and I’ve adjusted my approach.
ZOION | So what have you found is the biggest driver of traffic for you?
ZELAPHAS | So far it’s Telegram. For all new traffic coming in, Telegram is the biggest driver. There’s a Dealer’s Den group on Telegram and I started a business-themed chat which gave even more ideas on where and how to sell.
Beyond that, repeat customers and word-of-mouth. I still have friends back in the US, and a lot are friends that I made through the conventions there I went to. When they heard I was getting back into doing artwork again they would find jobs for me.
That’s part of how I got involved with doing the official convention shirt for Midwest Fur Fest 2017. Long story short, it was just a chain of friends and word-of-mouth connections and the convention reached out to me to do the artwork for them. That was a huge boost to have.
ZOION | You mentioned a career in business analytics. Do you have any formal training in art, as well? And a second part to that, how has your career in business helped your art?
ZELAPHAS | I’m largely self-taught. I did a lot of online tutorials, and followed other artists and watched how they accomplished things. But around 2011 or so I wanted to get more serious with it. I was living in Chicago and there was a company at the time called Dabble. It’s kind of like the Air BnB of education, if you will. If there was a skill you wanted to learn, you could search for it find someone who could teach you. I took a few classes through there. One on street art that showed how to make stencils that you spray paint. I took an oil painting class, and I took figure drawing and anatomy.
In my career, I’ve been kind of a jack-of-all-trades. My university degree is a bachelors in English Literature. But I minored in Information Technology Studies. And I was lucky enough to graduate right at the peak of the 2008 recession when nobody was hiring. Let alone hiring English Lit majors!
My dad knew I was still drawing. He found an ad in the newspaper, of all things, for a local ad agency that needed someone to do all sorts of graphic design and stuff. I wasn’t a designer, but interviewed with them anyway and they ended up being really impressed with my illustrations and with my web design capabilities. So even though that’s not what they were specifically looking for, they kind of created a job for me. So that’s how I got into doing web graphics.
From there I found another job doing graphics as well. Then at this job—even though my title was graphic designer—I ended up getting a lot of things organized. I did a ton of documentation, I did training documents. I was essentially acting like a project manager. Unfortunately I was commuting two hours each way to that job. So I kept looking, and I got a job in Chicago proper. That’s when I was hired as a business analyst. I had never even heard of that title before. But they basically just needed me to continue doing all the stuff I had been doing: figure out what was going wrong, how to make it right, and to document it and get people organized.
ZOION | So did that experience being a business analyst help then later on when you went to start your own business? Did you take some of what you learned there and apply it to your own practice?
ZELAPHAS | Absolutely. That’s definitely something I wouldn’t mind writing a whole book about. All that experience, especially working at a start up and working for a web agency where we handled a lot of different clients. Seeing everything that has gone wrong for all these different companies—and seeing how they track how things go right—that definitely had a direct translation to my business.
I mentioned earlier the analytics I keep track of. For my first year I just kind of let everything play out. Then I reviewed the analytics and now I’ve adjusted my strategy. That’s definitely something I directly attribute to my professional jobs.
ZOION | That’s fantastic to hear. It’s a really interesting, non-traditional path to becoming a working artist. You’ve describe yourself as a traveler and you’ve lived in many different places. Can you tell us more about that? How did that start, and how does it influence your practice?
ZELAPHAS | Yes, I call myself a traveler. Everyone has a different definition of this. One thing that always kind of irritated me is that people often talk about the places they’ve been as hunting trophies, rather than an experience. I like to actually experience places. Part of the whole point of travel is that I want to see what I don’t get at home, or what I haven’t seen in the last place where I was. That could just be a cafe or a restaurant, or it could be a piece of architecture.
When you’re traveling, you have to have your entire life portable. That’s really limited what I’ve ending up bringing with me, both with digital and traditional art. So I’ve severely downsized. I have one sketchbook, I have one book I use for inking. A bag full of inking supplies, an eraser and pencils, my Copic markers. And that’s literally it for my traditional art. Then digital, I needed a laptop for work anyway, and I have my Wacom tablet.
If you want to tie travel and art, that’s sort of an inadvertent thing. Not necessarily with the subjects I draw but just the limitations that it places on what I can do. The limitations aren’t necessarily bad because my style has been all over the place. If you look at my older work there’s no theme, there’s no style continuity, there’s no subject continuity. But having these sort of limitations has focused what I can do. Like I’ll have my inking supplies, so I can do inking on postcards. And digitally, I’ve done my Wolves with Ribbons series. So it’s helped narrow my focus and created a more solid portfolio in that way.
In terms of influence of my art—well, I’m a big fan of medieval themes. I love Lord of the Rings, His Dark Materials, Game of Thrones. And what I found myself ending up drawing is a lot of adventures. A lot of medieval adventurers wearing medieval style clothes, carrying satchels or walking canes.
ZOION | On your website you have separate categories for what you call ‘fantastic beasts’, and for anthro characters. It’s interesting that you make that distinction. What would you say each of those things means to you?
ZELAPHAS | I think that ties in to our earlier discussion about how whether or not I call myself a furry, and whether you’re fully in the furry fandom or a furry artist versus something more universal. I’m trying to be as accessible as possible to different audiences and different genres while still catering to what I truly love.
I truly love anthropomorphic creatures and animals. I enjoy drawing them and I have that specific category because there is a specific furry fandom that wants to be able to find that. But I also still love gryphons and dragons and all other kinds of fantastical themes. That’s kind of why I make the distinction. It’s partly branding and marketing, and search engine friendliness. But I guess it’s also just catering to different genres and different tastes.
There is a lot of overlap, like if I draw anthropomorphic characters in sort of Skyrim-esque settings where they’re conjuring magic or they’re hunting with bow and arrow, or they’re travelers, something like that. I would just label that fantasy and I wouldn’t mind showing that to anybody. But for things where it’s just somebody’s furry character, I kind of parse that out separately.
ZOION | It does seem like a lot of furry art tends to be contemporary characters in contemporary settings. Whereas you can do a lot with anthropomorphism that’s either science fiction or it’s high fantasy—it really can fit into any genre.
ZELAPHAS | That’s kind of what got me in to the furry fandom in the first place. I saw The Secret of Nimh where they’ve got all the mice and they’re wearing their unique clothes, and they’ve got this like H.R. Geiger style steampunk underground lair that they’re living in. That’s what really interests me. When someone asks me to draw a character that’s basically a man with a husky head and a husky tail who’s wearing shorts and a T-shirt—I’m sorry but I’m probably not the artist for that.
ZOION | You have mentioned on your website that you prefer to draw anthros that are closer to animals than to humans. Some examples of that which come to mind would be like Beatrix Potter’s stories or Redwall by Brian Jacques.
ZELAPHAS | Yep, exactly! I guess I’ve always been a furry in that definition. Beatrix Potter, Redwall, and Fantastic Mr. Fox when I was learning how to read. I love that story.
ZOION | Those things influenced your art visually. Is there anything else you draw your inspiration from?
ZELAPHAS | Since I am on Twitter I get access to memes and everyones’ reaction to the latest news. There’s a lot of anti-capitalist sentiment on Twitter—which, having graduated during the recession I can definitely commiserate with. So the Wolves with Ribbons and Hyena with Ribbons series are using animals to represent human emotion, and using that kind of imagery to have a political or philosophical attitude. I created the Wolves with Ribbons series, and they have largely positive phrases. So for example, “Done Is Better Than Perfect” which is something you hear a lot in the tech world and the art world. That was so successful I decided to continue that on with Hyenas with Ribbons. And when that’s done I’ll continue on with Big Cats with Ribbons.
Now Hyenas with Ribbons was inspiring, but they’re also quite a bit aggressive, or just sassy. So for example one of the latest ones I did says “Order The Avocado Toast.” And that’s directly calling out the general anti-Millenial sentiment.
At Furdu when I was selling stickers, “Fuck You, Pay Me” and “Eat The Rich” were my top selling designs. I was talking with a friend about how ironic it was to sell such designs and he said, “well you have to use the system to get over the system.” [Laughs]
ZOION | So what do you see about the future of your work, or the direction of where you’d like your practice to go? You’d also mentioned going to more cons, or possibly doing this full time as a business?
ZELAPHAS | Art-wise, well I’ve always admired landscape painting and artists who do color really well. It would benefit me to learn those things, and it’s something I want to dabble a little bit of my time in just to push what I know and what I can do.
I was thinking about this recently: it’s never good to just limit yourself and to box yourself in as an artist to just one particular style. I feel like that’s a trap a lot of furry artists fall into. they get praise and they get money because they draw dogs really well. But then that ends up being all they know how to draw. I don’t want to fall into that trap, but at the same time people are recognizing my art and my particular style for what it is. I shouldn’t necessarily shy away from that or feel like that has to immediately and constantly change. I definitely want to refine my inks more. My inked postcards have really been surging in popularity. Doing that month after month as a Patreon reward has really improved my skill in that area.
I would love to work 3D as well. When I was younger I used to do a lot sculpting with baked clay. That really came naturally to me, and my style translates well to 3D. And getting into 3D printing is something I would love to do too, creating figurines and things like that.
The bottom line is—I mentioned trying to emphasize my own style and kind of what I currently do well more. I see 3D, I see landscapes—and I want to do all of it. But then that business experience comes into play again too and I know I shouldn’t stretch myself too thin. That’s probably why I’ll probably focus on my inking and some of my other digital art first before I go nuts with everything else.
And yes, as many conventions as possible are in my future, especially now that I’m relocating to France. I’m already booked in at Eurofurence in Berlin and Furry Blacklight in Paris!
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