I just spent a chilly weekend in the Chicago suburbs with my furry friends! This was my second year attending Midwest Furfest, one of the biggest furry conventions in the world. I made and sold art, met new people, danced, attended shows, and got in a little more trouble than anyone there bargained for. You might’ve seen Midwest Furfest on the news thanks to its evacuation in the wee hours of Sunday. Chlorine powder was found in one of the stairwells and sent nearly 20 people to the hospital. Thankfully, neither I nor any of my friends were hurt, and as far as I’ve heard, those who suffered exposure have since been released from the hospital. The rest of the con was a memorable success for me on many counts, even with that incident and resulting sleep deprivation factored in.
Since furry has been in the news lately and some of my friends and family unfamiliar with the fandom have asked me about it, I thought I’d explain a little first this time before launching into the events of the convention.
So What is Furry, Anyway?
Simply put, furry fandom is a celebration of anthropomorphized animals, or animals with human characteristics. This is often just explained as “cartoon animals.” Members of the fandom and attendees of conventions express their interest in these animal characters through art, writing, music, performance, costumes, puppetry, and a variety of other activities. Any individual furry fan – or just a “furry” – will explore their interest in different venues than their peers. For some, it’s primarily a celebration of creativity. For others, it’s a place to party with friends. And yes, for a certain group, it includes space to explore more adult activities. While these choices of expressing “furry” differ person by person, the core experience enjoyed by all comes back to that interest in human-like animals and often in-jokes and memes the subculture has spawned during its growth. It’s ultimately about having fun and expressing yourself in an imaginative way.
Most furry fans use at least one character they created themselves as a form of self-expression, and many go by their characters’ names in fandom contexts. I am listed as “Nyomi” or “Nyomi Naomh” in convention materials like my Dealer’s table or in the art show because this is the name of my first fandom character. I’ll be shifting my fandom art branding and identity entirely to “Moth Monarch” soon since I’ve identified much more strongly with her as of late and because she’s more appropriate for the bug art I tend to make. Other friends I speak of in these reports are also usually mentioned by their fandom name rather than their legal one, as this is how we know each other best.
Left: Nyomi as depicted by Ashley Sanders. Right: Moth Monarch as I’ve drawn her.
There are a lot more facets I could discuss in detail, but it’s hard to guess what people want to know! If you have any questions about furry fandom, I’ll be happy to try to answer them in the comments. Now, to the con!
Thursday, December 4th
I checked in at the airport since the airline’s system wouldn’t let me do it online. American Airlines put me on an earlier flight than I’d scheduled for unknown reasons, though I’m not complaining – I got to the con sooner! After settling in my hotel room and looking around for my roomies (who had already arrived but were elsewhere), I wandered around the con space and got reacquainted with the hotel. The Hyatt Regency O’Hare is a pretty fantastic place.
A balcony view of the lobby space, including the O’H Grill.
One by one, friends and acquaintances arrived. I ran into Giza first, who is local to me and can easily be spotted at any con by the Final Fantasy-style white mage hoodie he wears. Later I met up with Floppybelly; she makes pipe cleaner critters and would be my tablemate in the Dealers’ Den for the weekend. My roomies returned from adventures nearby, and other friends checked in through the afternoon and evening. Registration opened but the line was long, so Floppy, Giza, and I went to Red Bar for dinner. The conversation was just as good as the sushi!
After eating, I picked up my badge, and Floppy and I set up our dealer’s table. We went with an extended arrangement of her usual cube stack with my stuff on one side and hers on the top and other side. I picked up some tips on how to make my own cube setup easier and faster to handle – she keeps her grid panels zipped-tied together in their arrangement and just folds them up to pack or secures the joints for setup. It took a little while to arrange everything, but we were pretty much done before Thursday setup closed.
I spent the rest of the evening with my roomies and other friends I’d missed. I ran into Uncle Kage (a storyteller and chairman of Anthrocon) and tried to give him some drawings I’d done from his livestreams since AC, but he was already well into a bottle of wine and a little too easily distracted. I also met a few new people when a friend invited me back to her room where a bunch of folks were hanging out. By the time I went to bed, I felt ready to tackle the art show and first day in the Dealers’ Den. It turned out one of my roomies snored, which was an unpleasant surprise, but a suggestion from twitter got me set up with a white noise app that drowned it right out and let me sleep in peace.
Friday, December 5th
After securing a few things at my Dealer table, I went to set up the art show. The line took a while and I was so tired I had to juggle my coffee and art pieces. Midwest Furfest had plenty of hanging hooks and supplies to get the art secured on the grid panels, so it wasn’t too difficult even though I was used to pegboard panels. They also gave me a sign with my name to put up while I checked in all my pieces:
My panel in the art show. Two giclée prints, four originals.
I went back to the Dealers’ room and drew a little badge of an anthro version of my luna moth, Terry, until the Den opened. Business was a slow at first as people headed for the most popular artists, but I did pretty well over the course of the day. The weekend would prove to defy the usual sales patterns I’d observed at previous conventions – this time, I got most of my commissions on the second and third days, while bandanas did best on the first day with some sales again on Sunday. Button and print sales were scattered throughout the weekend. It was fun to share a table with someone I knew rather than a random dealer, and I felt safer getting up for a break when I needed to, as I knew my stuff would be watched by someone I trusted.
Me at the dealer table I shared with Floppy!
Friends came to check on me throughout the day. Someone graciously brought me a coffee. The den was supposed to close at 7, and originally I’d had plans to leave 5-10 minutes early to make it to a show I had to livedraw, but Floppy and I made the executive decision to duck out at 6 and have some dinner first since we’d barely eaten all day. She ordered us some pizza (one Chicago deep dish and one gluten free flat crust with pepperoni… under the cheese. That was a new one for me). The order arrived just in time for us to leave the Den when we planned. We grabbed a spot in the con suite, chowed down, and got in line for the Story Hour. Which I drew as usual.
I somehow managed to nab Kage again in a less-drunk state as I was coming down from my room sometime later in the evening. He actually accepted the drawings this time and we chatted for a moment. A couple security guards went by to the back of the O’H Grill; he noticed but shook it off as “not my problem, not my con.” I have to wonder if he also was haunted by the same mysterious, uneasy feeling that I and some of my friends couldn’t seem to shake before the con. He excused himself to bed, and I juggled finishing a sketch commission with visiting Arrow and other buddies until I was ready for the same.
Saturday, December 6th
I hopped down to the Dealers’ Den in time to open and handled customers for the full duration of the day, 10-6. Buttons from all three sets I brought sold along with badge commissions, and I had some inquiries about custom work after the convention. Another coffee angel came by, and later Kittiara brought me a party hat. I gave her a bag of Sour Patch Kids. We both have December birthdays, you see.
I honestly don’t remember what I did for dinner, but I know during the evening I spent some time with friends and sketched badges I was to finish for my customers. By sheer luck, someone on twitter made me aware that the artist of Bug Pond was attending the con, so I went to the con suite to meet her and we ended up drawing each others’ bugs. It was awesome!
Jasmine Coté’s depiction of one of her bugs and Moth Monarch!
11pm rolled around and it was time for the 2-Gether Charity Show. While the shenanigans weren’t quite as wild as last year, a lot of silly and interesting things still happened, and the performers drank a lot of alcohol. I livedrew the event but will have to clean up the sketches before scanning since they got smudged afterward. Near the end, Kage took a bathroom break and commented on the large number of emergency vehicles in front of the hotel when he returned. We weren’t immediately worried; ambulances are called now and then during conventions to attend to those who drank too heavily, suffered heat exhaustion from fursuiting, or encountered other sudden medical problems. There were even more red-and-blue lights flashing through the doors of the ballroom by the end of the show, though, and some of us were starting to get worried. Kage went to investigate as did some of the show’s attendees.
The Chlorine Evacuation
The lights weren’t ambulances. They were fire trucks. The word to evacuate came moments after the Charity Show ended. The nearby ballrooms emptied out into the freezing Chicago night along with floor after floor of the main hotel. People were wearing whatever they were caught in – fursuits, dance clothes, PJs; some were lucky enough to be in their coats or have scarves and gloves. Emergency personnel went room to room on some floors making people leave. Many from the main hotel had smelled chlorine on the way out; those of us in the ballrooms thought there was a fire at first until news spread about a “gas leak.” More emergency vehicles showed up by the minute, including a hazmat team. We were moved across the street and huddled together there, sharing warm items and texting our friends to see whether they’d made it out. Fursuiters surrounded the underdressed to help protect them from the cold. My group managed to gather 15-20 people who knew each other and kept an eye out for more. We reassured each other while we waited to hear what would happen next.
It was some time before the nearby convention center was opened to us, though I’m sure those in charge got that arranged as quickly as possible. The lights and heat were turned on for us to take shelter there, and evacuees poured in. My friends and I regrouped and stayed together as they asked us several times to move farther and farther back into the building. We kept track of our own and others who seemed to need help. Some tried to sleep on the concrete floor while others talked or drew to pass the time. Some watched their groups’ things as others tried to locate bathrooms, water, or safe exits. Of all things in the middle of the commotion, I managed to meet someone I’d been wanting to the whole con. I drew her character while we sat and waited for the all-clear.
A sketch of a new friend’s moth character, “Speckle Pepper,” done to pass the time while waiting for the all-clear.
Several hours later, we were finally allowed to reenter the hotel. The mass of people took some time to move from the convention center into the ballroom area, and a friend lent me his coat as I was shivering violently. “This is spring in Saskatchewan!” he said. Reporters and news camera stood on the side of the road interviewing some folks. Many thanked the emergency responders on the way in. My group made it back to our rooms in the early morning and passed out quickly from exhaustion. Unfortunately, my room in particular had an issue with our keys and had to be let back inside by security.
The entire situation only really became clear for my friends and I the next morning. We didn’t all know then that chlorine had been found scattered a deliberate fashion (police called it “intentional”) between the 9th and 10th floors. We had no idea 19 people had been hospitalized for chlorine exposure. Since then, we’ve been dealing with the idea of surviving what appears to have been an act of domestic terrorism, though who did this and why have still not been confirmed. I sincerely hope that the responsible party faces justice for their actions and that there will be no copycat attacks at future conventions. It boggles my mind that someone would want to permanently harm or potentially kill people who just happen to have a slightly weirder hobby than the average Joe. It is what it is, but I doubt this is the last I will speak of it.
Sunday, December 7th
After a few hours’ sleep, I managed to scrape myself off the bed, get cleaned up, and make it down to Dealers’ open only a few minutes late. I was pretty exhausted, but thankfully Damaris brought me coffee again. Traffic was slow until more people woke up. My customers were understanding of commissions that had to become homework thanks to the evacuation, and I only had to issue one refund. I took a break several hours in to go check myself out of the art show. All but one piece sold, and I got an award for “Snow Angel”!
Snow Angel, 5×7″ ink and watercolor.
This award was left for me on the panel when I checked out! Staff Pick!
Floppy and I wrapped up Dealer hours, then tore down our table with the help of my tallest friend who goes by “FirHax.” I think it only took us about half an hour! We hauled our remaining goods to our respective hotel rooms. I met up with roomies to go to Closing Ceremonies, though I wasn’t feeling well throughout since my check-in email for my flight was late. It did come afterward, and I got my check from the art show, so everything was sorted out before Shiro and I decided to go have dinner. I ordered some more sushi and at last had the margarita I’d been saying I would have for months before MFF. It was delicious, and I was delightfully floaty for a while as the two of us got to talk about a lot of things. I bounced an idea for a short comic off Shiro, and he presented his own perspective that led to an even better conclusion for the story than I’d conceived of on my own. Shiro also did a tarot reading for me as I find them interesting and often get new perspectives on problems from discussing the cards’ outcomes. It was a solid evening to wrap up an interesting convention. Not much later, we were all beginning to pack and slide into bed.
Monday, December 8th & Onward
I left for the airport with Shiro and friends despite not flying out until several hours later. There was a lot of time to think at the airport. I slept through much of my flight and made it home safely.
This was my last convention of the year. I will be spending Christmas with my family and then heading out to FC in January with visits to dear friends in the area scheduled before and after. I hope to take some time to breathe, explore, and reconnect with my art and goals after all the bustle of the holidays. There are big things ahead, and I must be ready to make them happen.
While my real name will continue to be used as the overall unifying brand for all my artwork, I will be shifting my fandom presence from “Nyomi Naomh” to “Moth Monarch” over the next year as mentioned. FC will be the last con where I am listed as “Nyomi Naomh.” New cards and promotional material will be phased in. I will also start going by “Moth Monarch” or just “Monarch,” though friends who have known me for a while will of course be welcome to continue calling me Nyomi. Here’s to a positive change and lots of growth in 2015! If I don’t write much again before this year fades away, Happy Holidays and have a safe New Year’s!
All photos © 2014 Mary T. Capaldi unless otherwise noted.