Once upon a time, dead and often festering mice were ground into paste and used for toothaches. Hemmorhoids were treated with hot irons. Trepanning and bloodletting were common practices. And surgery? You may as well write out your last will and testament and kiss your children goodbye because chances were that you weren’t coming out of that brutal, bloody business alive.
Thank god for modern medicine, yeah? We’ve made such advances! …Or have we?
Upon having a section of her leg removed as treatment for a rare and aggressive form of cancer, Cleveland-based artist Arabella Proffer began researching medical history and the treatments and techniques of centuries past, where it appeared the “cure” for her particular ailment had changed little. What she came to realize, though, is that the trauma she was enduring was nothing compared to those savage, superstitious old-timey remedies; “You could have been rich, important, or beautiful,” she says, “but if sick, you would still receive brutal or worthless treatment.”
Thus inspired, she began a series of surreal portraits exploring those gruesome curative practices of the past. Drawing upon her signature style with influences of punk rock, gothic divas, religious icons, and the decadence and decline of European aristocracy, “Ephemeral Antidotes” chronicles her subject’s afflictions alongside the horrors of traditional medieval “cures.”
In the following interview Arabella Proffer candidly speaks with us about her background and inspirations, as well as her illness and the fearless fascinations it inspired in her confessional body of work.
Tell us a little about your artistic background – What were your first inclinations that you had a strong creative instinct and how did you nurture that?
The story goes that when I was two years old I drew an eye with a landscape in the pupil. So it was kind of decided for me by my family that I was going to be an artist. I think it was their worst fear I’d grow up to become an accountant!
I was enrolled in classes early, but I didn’t really nurture it–in fact, I kind of gave up on it for a while. But even the times I tried to fight it, I realized art was the only thing I was good at. Going to art school in Los Angeles was decided upon already by the time I was 12. I also had a strong interest in film, so I did that, but came back around to painting when I moved to Laguna Beach at 16. In that town the “art scene” was a Wyland meets Thomas Kinkade nightmare! I had to do something! I actually got censored at a few galleries and at my high school because of the punk rock nudes I was painting. My boyfriend at the time got me my first uncensored show at Koo’s Art House in Santa Ana, and shortly after that I attended Art Center College of Design and then CalArts where I was in the art department, but mostly doing experimental film and animation.
I didn’t start painting in oils until I was maybe 23. I feel like there’s still so much to learn with it. But I never thought I’d be a gallery artist or doing what I do now; working in the film industry had been my primary goal for many years.
Your works might be described as Mannerist meets Pop Surrealism–what would you add to that for folks unfamiliar with your art? And what are some of your influences and inspirations in that vein?
I think a few others have called it magic realism and neorealism, but Tamara de Lempicka and Christian Schad were huge influences to be sure, as well as the early 20th century work in my parents’ art collection. They also collected contemporary Ukrainian and Russian art, and David Miretsky was a big influence mainly due to the sheer size and presence of his work in our home. I would actually call him a Pop Surrealist with that slight Christian Schad thing going on; his was the first art opening I ever attended when I was five years old in New York. He now owns two of my paintings and I’m still floored by that.
You’re also an author, as wonderfully evidenced by the stories and histories accompanying your National Portrait Gallery of Kessa series, documenting the lives of a fictional empire of punks, goths, and nobility behaving badly. I’ve been peeking in at the writings on your blog and finding it humorous, insightful, and a fascinating glimpse into the life and goings-on of an artist. Though, I imagine, your true heart lies with the art you create, what can you tell us about your background in writing and working with words as opposed to painting?
My parents ran a Russian literature publishing company, my dad was a writer, and my mom is a writer. They both juggled between serious academic biographies and secretly wrote pulp or regency romance novels on the side! Growing up I met a lot of famous authors, but to be honest I really didn’t like reading. At least not until later, and then only historical or biographical accounts of aristocrats and silly café society people.
I don’t know why but I have an aversion to fiction–which is funny since my husband is a fiction writer and I’ll edit his first drafts (really mean comments too, red pen and all). And to this day I have never read a single book that either of my parents have written. Probably should get on that. I used to make illustrated books as a kid with a weak story to tie images together, but that was all. I did okay in writing workshops and the classes I took in college, but the book I wrote came easy because it was short biographies I could pull out of my ass and it was about what I had already painted.
One of my jobs was to write artist bios for a fancy art gallery in L.A., so maybe this was how it began? I didn’t know if they were any good until people at shows thought they were real and I started getting emails from amateur historians asking me where I got my information on these “historical characters.” Fortunately, writing has been way easier than painting! In fact, all the artwork bios for my medical history series were written in a single day.
In 2010 you were diagnosed with a rare and aggressive form of cancer and subsequently experienced a botched surgery and suffered stage 3 kidney failure as a result. These occurrences had a huge impact on your art and inspired your Ephemeral Antidotes series and, I believe, your Biomorphic Garden Party series. Can you talk about your experience and how it transformed from the art you had been making into these newer series?
Sure, the cancer is called liposarcoma, and unfortunately the only famous poster child we have is the former crack-smoking mayor of Toronto. The series began when I did research into seeing the old ways of how it was treated, and I came to find out it hadn’t changed in centuries: amputation of the leg. I didn’t have a full amputation because it was caught in time, but I’ll never be able to run or do stairs normal, and I still need a cane on occasion.
Chemo doesn’t work on that type of cancer so I had a boatload of radiation which in turn fractured my bone, so I now have a titanium rod and other hardware inside. I can’t run or do other movements, but I can kick someone in the balls really hard now! I started the series as a way to be kind of like, “hey it could be worse, because treatment for the black plague sure looks like it sucked!” and that led me to the Dittrick Museum of Medical History here in Cleveland for research and to attend lectures. I was mostly focused on the eras between Medieval through the Regency–when things got only slightly more civilized. That first show was appropriately held at Loved to Death in San Francisco. As a result, medical humanities has become my hobby and I’ve met a whole community of cool people through it who are maybe a little into the morbid and macabre but are also historians and scientists.
Something is always going wrong with my health even in this wonder age of medicine, and I’m always thinking about what will be considered stupid and barbaric in the future. I believe chemo will be seen as a horror and the same goes for a lot of prescription drugs we have today. The kidney failure was a prime example of how modern medicine and robotic surgery isn’t always great; it was from a botched lady-parts surgery related to the cancer, and it nearly killed me. I actually finished painting for my second medical-themed solo show in Cleveland while I was recovering from it. The final two pieces, the veiled women I think, look very different from the rest of the series because that was when I finally broke down and couldn’t continue. Still, I attended the reception with my giant catheter bag in my purse–and everyone thought my purse was a Chanel–so that was pretty funny!
If anything, the ongoing experience has turned me into a bit of a nihilist. I don’t believe anything happens for a reason anymore, it just happens. I’ve never been afraid of death and was always fascinated by it, so the only beneficial thing that has come of it all is that I’m not scared of a damn thing anymore. Oh, and I have a handicapped parking sticker for getting awesome parking spots!
“What the patient says is truth might not be what the body reveals as the truth.” You wrote this regarding the importance of images for both medical professionals and patients. What truths are showing up in your art right now? And listening to your body the way that I am sure that you do now, what do you divine from them?
Oh God, I kind of don’t want to know! Luckily I’ve been doing nothing but commissions for the last year, so I’m hoping there is no correlation! Except painting a lot of cats; cats are awesome. That’s the truth.
What is life like in your workspace/studio? Do you have any routines or rituals that put you in the mood to create?
I share a studio in an old Templar car factory with my best friend, but I haven’t really used it since I went through two major surgeries last year. I use it for meetings and to varnish art these days but by spring I should be more active there. I kind of miss the routine of keeping “office hours” and the light with the huge factory windows. I work from home now and overlook Lake Erie, and I’m surrounded by a combination of medical books and fashion or art books. I’m on a second shift schedule so I don’t get going until about 3 p.m. Watching Judge Judy is usually my background noise because I love her! But I also have certain albums on loop: The Church, Priest = Aura; The Black Ryder, Buy the Ticket, Take the Ride; and the Velvet Tinmine compilation for the fun glam singles.
I might be a full-time artist but I’m also a Cleveland housewife, so there’s a lot of vacuuming of cat hair and blasting Sisters of Mercy while I re-line my shelves with scented drawer liners. The truth is that I am supremely lazy about my art if I have no deadline; I read about artists who say they spend 8-10 hours a day painting and I just can’t get down with that. Five hours is about all I can do before I need a cocktail, and I’m also not a typical introvert studio artist. I go out a lot and travel and socialize and see lectures and movies and bands. This is partly because I have spent so much time confined to bed against my will, and when I see people who just want to stay home and watch Netflix, it drives me crazy. I’ve done that for months at a time because I literally couldn’t use the bathroom without help, so I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of canceled social plans and staying home dorking around on the internet.
What’s the point of making work if you aren’t living a real life in-between? Do you have any first-hand experiences with anything? The first step is leaving the house!
What do you do enjoy doing when you’re not creating?
There’s a crazy stack of books I’m slowly getting through: currently it’s the Marlene Dietrich biography her daughter wrote and it’s quite nasty! Next is an English translation of The Eight Paradises by Princess Bibesco that I spent a stupid amount on tracking down at auction. I try to travel as much as I can; New Orleans is where I go most often but Dublin is my other favorite. I also am a teaching artist at the Cleveland Museum of Art and part of a program that promotes observational skills using the collection to medical students and medical professionals. It’s still a new thing but so far it has been really interesting and I get to do a crash course in learning about certain works.
Is there something you are currently working on, or are excited about starting that you can tell us about?
I’ll be in a group show at the Crystal Palace in Aspen, Colorado called “Female Gaze” curated by Max Kauffman, that opens February 4. Aside from that I want to continue with more of the “Ephemeral Antidotes” series; I’m not done with it and I have piles of notes and ideas for more subjects to paint. I’m a deadline-driven person, so without one I’m all over the place and my laziness comes in waves. One day I’m doing a commission or an experimental piece, the next I’m doing commercial illustration work.
Find Arabella Proffer: website // blog // instagram // twitter
(This article was originally posted at Dirge; the site is no longer active.)