BearWatch: Fredrick Campeau, creator of Fursty Men

Fursty Men, an art and design company dedicated to producing illustrations of big bearded and hairy bears and their admirers, was created as a bit of an erotic and spiritual awakening for artist Fredrick Campeau. 

Here’s what Fredrick had to say about his art in his own words:

“The reason I decided to lean more toward expressing the erotic side of things with Fursty Men is because I felt so far in my art I hadn’t really given myself the permission or space to do that and that actually was really bothering me,” he says. 

Flashback to the late 90s, and there you’ll find a young, queer, angsty and misunderstood art kid in a tiny town in northern Alberta, Canada. “Between dutifully attending high school and helping on the family farm, you could also find me hastily sketching monsters, writing tons of bad poetry and blasting Skinny Puppy as loud as possible from his bedroom, much to my parents’ delight,” Fredrick says. 

Fredrick didn’t come out immediately; It was a gradual process that started with a few trusted people. Then, Fredrick decided to come out to the rest of his family when he was 19. 

“My biggest fear was being rejected by my dad,” he says. “I remember we were in his old beat up truck driving somewhere and he was going on about how I would meet a nice woman and start a family one day. I had obviously foreseen this conversation and so had planned how I wanted to tell him. I took control of the moment and told him outright that I didn’t want to hear any response from him about what I was about to say, especially if it was going to be negative. Then I just said it –- I am into guys, not girls. I’m gay, dad.”

This is just the beginning of Fredrick Campeau’s journey through art, sexuality and self awareness. His story is many things — beautiful, enlightening, frightening and incredibly human. Here, he reflects on his journey, leading to the creation of Fursty Men. 

Fredrick Campeau

“After coming out to him, my dad ignored and didn’t speak to me for two weeks, which was crushing. I think he was angry and confused, but I can’t say I know exactly what he was thinking or how he was feeling. Then, he came to me one day, gave me the biggest hug and told me he loved me no matter what, and was there to support me. Those two weeks were a mindfuck, I didn’t want to lose him. But I understand he needed time to process this new reality which included having a gay son.

In the time between graduating from high school, moving out and coming out to everyone I loved, I attended a semester of art college in Edmonton. I dropped out — like so many other art students seem to do — but it wasn’t an easy choice to make for me. I knew I had potential as an artist, but I just didn’t want to be in school anymore. I wanted to spread my wings and find myself, and that wasn’t it.

I moved to a little ski town in the Rockies, and got jobs working in a couple of hotels and a flower shop helping with arrangements and deliveries. These obviously weren’t my dream jobs, but I didn’t care. There were lots of parties, lots of laughs and life was easy. I didn’t want to plan my future, all I wanted was to have time to shake myself off and get some life experience as a young, out gay man. Soon after arriving, I met someone, a French Canadian, who’d come to work for the summer. Things got serious between us. He ended up staying, and we moved in together. After a while, I think we both figured out that we wanted to go in different directions and despite loving each other, we were going to break up to give each other that freedom.

It was during this time that I started to notice some strange symptoms appearing. I thought I was maybe just getting a cold or the flu, but my toes had also started to go numb. I went to the ER and they told me it was probably just a virus, so I should get lots of rest and to drink a lot. Soon, my fingers and tongue also started to go numb. Regular water started to taste like salt water; I was gagging on it and couldn’t get it down. Still, I thought it would pass and I’d be fine.

It must have been a couple of days later. I was near delirious from dehydration, holding onto the walls in my apartment to get around. I took a hot bath to relieve the soreness in my muscles, but realized afterwards that I couldn’t get out of the tub. No one was home, and I struggled for a long time until I finally managed to get out.

Instead of calling my boyfriend, I crawled on the floor to my bed and fell asleep from exhaustion. When I woke up, I tried to get dressed, but I couldn’t pick up my pants from the floor. My hands had stopped working; That moment of terror was forever burned into my brain. I lost it and couldn’t stop crying.

Minutes after that my boyfriend arrived home from work and found me. He and a friend who lived in the next building carried me to the car and rushed me to the ER. The doctor examined me and diagnosed me on the spot with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a rare auto-immune disorder.

They explained that, if it was GBS, I was soon going to be paralyzed. I am filling in the gaps here because my memory isn’t perfect, but I believe that, at that point, they also explained it was going to be temporary. It could last for months or up to a year, based on what they knew about it, but they didn’t know to what extent I would be paralyzed. It could be a mild case with only partial paralysis, or it could be more severe with near complete paralysis.

They immediately put me in an ambulance to an ICU in a hospital in Calgary. My boyfriend followed in his car. My parents and siblings dropped everything and started travelling to meet us there. Everything gets fuzzy from that point on. I remember arriving at the hospital hours before everyone else, but my memory of the first 10 days or so after that as the paralysis set in is shattered.

It moved very quickly through my body, and at one point they must have sedated me so they could intubate me, as I was having trouble breathing. They finally had to perform a tracheotomy, cutting a hole through my windpipe and attaching me to a ventilator, as I could no longer breathe on my own. 

Somewhere in there they also installed a feeding tube through my nose to my stomach. Once the paralysis had fully set in, the only parts of my body that I could move was my upper neck and face muscles. I lost my ability to speak, as there was no airflow into my mouth; My ability to communicate had been reduced to lip, eye and head movements.

There I was, barely a man, and I had inescapably become trapped in my own body. I can’t explain the kinds of emotions I was having then. I was certainly scared out of my mind. The future seemed erased as I silently surveyed the ruins of my life. My own immune system had stripped away the myelin sheath from the nerves in my peripheral nervous system until those nerves could no longer communicate signals to and from my brain. 

The only hope I found in all of this was that it was a temporary situation, and the myelin would regenerate. I found out much later that there had been a large chance I could have died due to complications, but they kept that information from me so I wouldn’t panic. They also didn’t tell me that my case was severe. On a scale of one to five — five being dead — I was a four.

My body wasted, and I became thin as a rail. I was in pain, from mild to severe, at all times. It felt like I was one big bruise. Most of my doctors had never encountered a case like mine, or GBS at all. They tried different treatments based on studies and successes in other patients who had had GBS. 

They found that boosting the immunoglobulins in my blood through plasma transfusions was helping the myelin to regenerate faster, and I was given a lot of physiotherapy to keep my tendons from shortening. I caught pneumonia twice from the ventilator, but luckily they were able to get me through those episodes and there were no other major complications.

Every minute felt like hours in that hospital; Time dragged on and on. It began to feel like I was having an out of body experience, watching what was happening from outside of myself. I was dissociating from my body, and the pain and trauma it was going through. I was dissociating from the identity I’d applied to it mentally and emotionally. You don’t realize how much you identify with and take your actions for granted until you can’t make them.

This dissociation created a new space of experience as a human being that I’d never experienced before. I felt completely vulnerable and laid bare emotionally. My physical health and survival was in the hands of others. I had to arrive to a new level of spiritual trust that I’d be able to reconstitute myself somehow after all of it.

The first month and a half were spent in the ICU. After I was out of the critical stage, able to breathe again on my own, and after some movement had begun to reappear, I was transferred to another unit where they began the process of rehabilitation for another month and a half. The final month was spent in a physical rehab unit in another hospital where I underwent intensive physiotherapy and occupational therapy. 

I had to learn to stand again, then to walk again. I also had to learn to swallow again, and I had to train my arms and hands to work again, so I could feed myself and perform other basic tasks like going to the bathroom, washing myself, and dressing myself. It was grueling, but every bit of progress was bringing me closer to the light at the end of the tunnel. I got to see myself rebuild myself, piece by piece.

I remember the day I had enough dexterity and strength in my fingers to hold a pencil and finally draw something again. A primal creative force expressed itself through me, raw and unfettered. It arrived onto the page through subtle movements, appearing like a dark ghost of the trauma I had undergone thus far. It was a release, an expression of healing, and I recognized it as that.

After four months (which felt more like four years), I was finally well enough to be discharged. I was by no means completely healed physically, but I could now walk with the help of a cane. Throughout the entire experience, my boyfriend visited me nearly every day, driving back and forth from the mountains.

In the end all of this had brought us closer and we decided to stay together. My mom also came to stay in Calgary for the majority of the time I was in hospital. Her presence and loving support is probably what helped keep me sane during some of the most critical times.

After discharge, my life took an unexpected turn. I moved with my boyfriend eastward across the country to Quebec City, where he was from. I was not strong enough to work at a job yet and my ability to speak French was not great. I found myself feeling isolated right away. In that space of isolation, I had to admit to myself that I was very broken on the inside, despite being able to move again.

It was then that I decided to reflect deeply upon what had just occurred to me. I recognized I’d survived some kind of energetic rite of passage. I’d transcended the flesh to a degree, and the veil had been lifted enough for me to glimpse something profound during that time in the hospital. At times, I’d had, what I would call, truly spiritual experiences; Epiphanies that I couldn’t explain simply as being artifacts of the mind.

I suddenly had a renewed sense of focus that was being amplified by my experience, and I decided to begin learning how to meditate, in my own way, without a teacher. I had been interested in mysticism and spiritual ideas since my early teen years, and had read a lot about meditation already. 

I took what I knew and applied it; Focusing on the breath, allowing thoughts to arise and dissipate. I became more aware of my attention and where it was going, and I recognized my intention. Most importantly, I arrived to my own heart and found there a lack of self-love. It was time to fix that.

Without going into it too much, I had been exposed to methods of shamanic journeying in my early teen years as well, and while meditating I remembered and saw how meaningful they had been for me. In a way, they had decoded the state of my heart and mind. They had been my first rites of passage along this strange path that was unfolding before me, yet I had not recognized them at the time. I picked those lessons back up, brushed the dust off, and applied them to my meditation practice as I’d developed it to that point.

This is where the real magic in my life began to happen. I began to regularly go on Inner Journeys, recording their contents in writing and reflecting back on them for the purposes of decoding their meanings. My intention was innocent and based on curiosity and hope. 

I wanted to explore inner spaces, possibly meet spirit guides and create a dialogue between my outer and inner realities for the purposes of healing. I hoped I could find a way to dismantle the cultural programming that had left me feeling disconnected from my own nature.

As the years passed the artist in me awoke again. I began with a new approach that I hadn’t tried since I was a child. I began to create automatic drawings, line drawings on white paper without any forethought or direction. 

I wanted to start fresh, from the root of everything, from the instant before the mind decides what something is. I wanted to loosen up and enjoy the process of creative discovery again, which ran parallel to what I was doing with the Inner Journeying. 

It was at this time that I discovered what I call the grace of the line — an unaided and unaltered ease which simply flows from the hand through the pencil to the page. The paralysis and recovery, and all of the meditation and journeying, had helped me learn to hold my awareness in a position of observer rather than as an occupant and owner of my own movement.

Over the following decade, I nurtured and developed this grace in the line along with my Inner Journeying practice, honing my inner subtle senses along the way. I made thousands of automatic drawings and recorded hundreds of journeys in writing. 

I shared some of my drawings online, but mostly what I made went unseen by anyone but myself. I was acting very much like I was in a permanent retreat with all of it. Then, at one point, I felt a strong need for change. The creative output was demanding it somehow. I needed to learn to paint and express the visions I was having.

I took a huge leap and signed up for a month-long painting seminar, which took place in the Italian Alps in that summer of 2012. I bought all my supplies and got myself mentally prepared. Little did I know that, by getting on that plane, I was taking one of the most important steps to creating an entirely new chapter of my life.

That seminar was mindblowing. I learned some really amazing techniques that felt perfect for what I wanted to achieve creatively. I realized that I definitely had potential as a painter during those weeks, and my teachers also recognized it and showed me clearly what I needed to work on. 

I learned so much — too much information really to process in that short of a time. I took it all back with me to Quebec and began to paint on my own, hoping to unravel it all in the coming months and years. Some of those teachers then decided to join together to form an academy in Vienna, Austria the following year. I was overjoyed, and dreamed of attending for at least a trimester sometime in the future.

Then, there was a lot of change. My relationship ended with my boyfriend in a natural way, we had simply grown apart in our attitudes and approach to life over time. I was very sad when it ended. I had grown to love him unconditionally despite our differences, but it was time to let go; We had had our time. 

I suddenly had nothing holding me where I was anymore, and had to make a big decision about where I was going to go. I decided I would follow my heart and it was pointing clearly to Vienna and the academy.

I would spend the next three years there, practicing my skills in drawing and painting and becoming their first graduate of the program. The academy drew teachers and students from all across the globe, and was truly a wonderful and transformative space to learn in. 

The focus was always on transmitting practical techniques of artmaking from teacher to student. There were no tests or marks, nothing to hand in, no structure based on merit or award. There was also an emphasis on creating space for meditation and journeying — My kind of place.

The couple who founded the academy had been assistant and apprentice at one time to a Viennese artist named Ernst Fuchs, and it was partially founded in his honour. He had become famous as being part of the Vienna School of Fantastic Realism, and an originator of the movement and genre of Fantastic Realism overall. 

He was recognized by many as being a true modern master in his craft. To put things in context, in his day, he was spending time and exchanging ideas with people like Dali, Giger, Venosa, Klarwein, and other important and innovative artists who would all leave their mark in different areas of the art world, influencing countless other artists to come.

Many of the teachers at the academy had been either a student or an apprentice to Fuchs at one time, so I learned what I know about painting from them. I had the chance to meet him on several occasions, as well as paint with him privately. However, he was then too old and ill to take on any new apprentices. I was possibly one of the last young painters to have that chance, and I hold those moments I spent with him close to my heart. He passed away later that same year in 2015.

A year and a half into my studies, I met someone here in Vienna. We fell in love, and have since married. I am now settled here, and am going through the process of becoming a permanent resident. 

Meanwhile, I also became an independent art teacher. Between 2016 and the end of 2019, I was running my own workshops teaching drawing, painting and Inner Journeying, even returning twice as teacher to the seminar in Italy where it all began. 

I also taught for five weeks at the academy proper in Vienna. I was slated to teach there again in 2021 as well, until the pandemic happened. Due to this, the academy was sadly forced to close their doors or face serious debt.

I also went on a necessary hiatus from teaching for this year. Suddenly, I had a lot of time on my hands and space to figure out something new. So, I decided I wanted to learn how to make digital art, and to try my hand at making my own gay, erotic illustrations. 

I sort of knew what I wanted to get to before I even started, and so aimed for that. This is how Fursty Men was born some months ago now. Switching from using traditional media to adding digital art to the mix was a big change, but I am really enjoying it. I see it as just adding another tool to my toolbox as an artist.

I felt that, so far in my art, I hadn’t really given myself the permission or space to explore the erotic side of things, and that actually was really bothering me. I feel like there is a lot more still to express, and I haven’t even seen the tip of the iceberg, but doing this has been a really good thing for me. 

I have also simultaneously started working on a graphic novel project, which will be revealed in the future. If the pandemic hadn’t happened, I don’t know if I would have arrived at doing any of this right now, so in that way it has somehow managed to help create a lot of positive growth in my life.

I know this year has brought a lot of change on so many levels for all of us and it has been all too easy to slip into negative and overly critical thought patterns about the state of the world. But this isn’t a time to give up or settle on feeling overwhelmed. Real lasting change takes breaking things down first. 

It really is a time to stand up for justice and integrity. If we want the world to be habitable for future generations, we need to learn to live more creatively and to love each other. This isn’t about “us versus them”, and it never has been — even if it has felt that way to the part of us that suffers. Giving more, loving more and operating from our hearts in every situation is how we’ll bridge the gap.”

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Kyle Jackson

Kyle Jackson (He/Him) is Senior Staff Writer at Gray Jones Media, and additionally works as a writer, editor and theatre artist/actor. A native of New Orleans, Louisiana, he studied at Dillard University, received a BA in Theatre from Morgan State University, an MS in Arts Administration from Drexel University, and completed the British American Drama Academy’s Midsummer in Oxford Programme in 2017. Having lived in Baltimore, the Washington, DC area, Philadelphia and New York City, he now resides and works in London, United Kingdom.