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Lakewood artist Arabella Proffer dies after longtime cancer battle

Artist Arabella Proffer
John Petkovic
Cooperative Press
Artist Arabella Proffer passed away Tuesday after living with terminal cancer for four years.

Lakewood artist Arabella Proffer, who painted everything from punk portraiture to her own health struggles, has passed away at 45. Her work straddled the worlds of biology, nature and pop surrealism, showing up in books and comics, on gig posters, video and photography.

After her death on Tuesday, husband Ben Vendetta posted a tribute on Instagram, which began simply, "The light has gone out."

The couple moved to Cleveland in 2004, following one of the bands on their record label, Elephant Stone, from California.

Proffer was first diagnosed with cancer in 2010. That inspired her Biomorphic Garden Party series of paintings.

“One day, I just got sick of painting people,” she said during a 2021 interview with Ideastream's David C. Barnett.

Her portraits then turned to what Barnett described as "surrealistic landscapes of floating blobs, with drips and dark tendrils, weaving menacing webs."

“I had done these shapes and stuff like for months before I even knew I had cancer,” Proffer said. “When they show me MRIs and scans, it actually looked exactly like what I've been painting.”

In 2020, the cancer returned. By then, she had received an Ohio Arts Council Grant through the Artists with Disabilities Access Program in 2016 and an Akron Soul Train Fellowship in 2019. In 2021, the Michigan native recalled the artistic journey which took her from the Midwest to the West Coast and back again.

“When I was two, apparently, I drew an eye with a landscape in the iris, and my grandfather and my father were like, 'Oh, she's a genius and she's going to be an artist,’” she said. “I think their worst nightmare would be that I would become an accountant or something like that.”

In 2020, Proffer was accepted into the permanent collection of the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve in Cleveland. Her solo show “FLAUNT,” runs at the archives through June 24.

Cleveland writer Shannon Okey remembered her friend's irreverent sense of humor in works such as the book "Restrooms of Cleveland," which "highlighted the notable abodes of the city... in paintings of women juxtaposed with faux-inspirational quotes, to illustrate the absurdity of toxic positivity culture."

Okey posted details on Facebook Wednesday about a possible memorial.

"There will be a party at a later date," she said. "I refuse to say 'celebration of life' because that sounds like a one and done. I will be remembering, celebrating and loving her for the rest of my life, not just for one day’s event."

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.