Obstacles Become Inspiration For Cleveland-based Painter Arabella Proffer @bay_arts


Fri 4/4 @ 7pm

By Josh Usmani

Sometimes inspiration comes from strange places. For Cleveland-based painter Arabella Proffer her ongoing health issues have inspired beautiful, powerful works examining medical superstitions (and their repercussions) throughout history.

Her own traumatic experiences have become her muse. She creates fictional portraits of women inspired by classic, mannerist portraiture  and 14-15th century medical illustration. Her style is reminiscent of Pop Surrealism, with the influence of punk and goth aesthetics.

Ephemeral Antidotes: Revisited at BAYarts is a continuation of her 2012 solo show in San Francisco. The 2012 show was inspired by her 2010 diagnosis of a rare, aggressive cancer. During her treatment, she discovered a 16th century painting of Saints Cosmas and Damian, in which it appeared the “cure” for her illness hadn’t changed much with time or technology. Ultimately, Proffer had a section of her leg removed, and the experience led her to research medical history.

Each of her fictional portraits is accompanied by a biography (written by Proffer) featuring the fascinating yet misguided treatments and “cures” of old medicine. Her paintings are bright, bold and filled with color, yet her semiotic, symbolic subject matter include amputation, ocular prosthesis, conjoined twins and more.

Recently, Proffer began having more health complications, resulting in surgery earlier this year. Her health issues have complicated her final preparation for her exhibition, but she graciously took time to discuss her new show with us.


Cool Cleveland: You received your BFA from California Institute of the Arts, and have exhibited your work throughout North America, Europe, parts of the Middle East and Australia. What brought you to Cleveland, and what keeps you here?

Arabella Proffer: I came to Cleveland 10 years ago when my husband and I couldn’t take L.A. anymore. We had signed 2 Cleveland bands to our record label, Elephant Stone, and we already had a network of people we knew. After visiting a couple times we really liked it and everything kind of fell into place as far as timing. It was a choice based mainly on economics and getting my pulse rate down.

It’s funny because people assume I’m from here having “moved back” and when I say I’m not, they get very suspicious! Really the cost of living and my friends keeps me here; you can afford to be an artist here and it serves very well as a home base. The need for me to be close to Cleveland Clinic for health reasons is the main reason I stay, now.

Honestly I was ready to move on to another city (this is the longest I’ve stayed in one place) before I was diagnosed with cancer. New Orleans and Dublin are next on my list, but it looks like Cleveland has its hooks in me for a while still. My friends and family back in California keep asking when I’m finally going to move back! They are all amazed I’m still here.

This show is a continuation of your last solo show in San Francisco in 2012, so can you tell us a bit about that show for anyone that missed it? What similarities and differences can we expect?

The solo show at Loved to Death (you may have seen their reality show Oddities: San Francisco) was the initial work I did after losing a section of my leg and going through a ton of radiation treatments. It came about in a way because I was telling artist Susan Danko about how thankful I was to not have had that surgery 500 years ago or more, and said something about how I paint these fake portraits of people who lived in the past but I focused on the eccentricity and aristocratic glamour – not daily strife.

You could have been rich, important, or beautiful during the Renaissance, but if you were sick, they were still going to throw a bunch of leeches on you for a cure. And that isn’t very glamorous. There will be a few pieces from that show in 2012, and it’s all pretty much a continuation. Black Madonnas, STDs, amputation, “monster babies” and ocular prosthesis are just a few of the depictions.

But don’t worry, they aren’t gross! I wanted to stay away from making anything too dark. The paintings are heavy in symbolism, but in the end, I can’t help painting pretty women with a slightly punk edge. It’s a knee jerk reaction with me.

You’ve had some health issues again recently. First, how are you feeling? How has this experience impacted your exhibition and your creative process?

Yes it seems my body keeps trying to kill me from the inside! I went into kidney failure after a surgery went, well, not as planned, and that was a new one for me. I’m doing better – I was even doing accounting and other business 2 days later like a jackass – but I won’t be 100% for a while.

I can tell now that while I was sick I made a lot of poor choices artistically, in fact, I hate everything I’ve done during the last year. Only now do I feel normal and confident about making good choices again. I’m currently scrambling trying to finish this show as we speak, but I think it will all turn out OK. I wish I had time to start it over, but right now I’m kind of like the gal that didn’t train for the marathon properly, got a cramp, and am just going to have to settle for finishing.

Do you plan to continue evolving these concepts in the future, or will you shift your focus moving forward?

I have so many sketches and notes just from a research perspective; I wish I could do them all, but I feel like I need to go back to my biomorphic abstraction series. In way, they are similar because they are related to science and to organisms with a mind of their own. I’ll always paint people between the commissions I do and the various group shows I get invited into, but I think once this show is laid to rest I need to spend my free time not painting humans for a while. I’ll still probably paint cats, though!

Do you have any upcoming shows booked for the rest of 2014 you can let us in on?

Lets’ see, we have the Monster Drawing Rally at SPACES on April 12th which freaks me out drawing in public, but I feel it’s a good thing to do. I’ll be part of a Daft Punk tribute show at Gauntlet Gallery in SF this spring, and the G40 Arts Summit in September.


Proffer is one of Cleveland’s most talented and accomplished painters. Ephemeral Antidotes: Revisited is a powerful display of her spirit. This is an exhibition not to be missed. You’re sure to find inspiration in Proffer’s ability to turn an obstacle into an opportunity.



Josh Usmani is a 27 year old local artist, curator and writer. Since 2008, his work has been featured in over 50 local and regional exhibitions.








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