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Lakewood Artist Arabella Proffer Shares Advice For Living

Carriers [Arabella Proffer]

Lakewood painter Arabella Proffer’s artis out there. Her portraits of punks depicted as medieval royalty have international fans. But some of her most compelling work overlaps with her own health struggles.

"Evangeline" [Arabella Proffer]

At the start of a recent Zoom interview, there’s a glow to Arabella Proffer’s smile as she adjusts the camera on her end of the call. She says this is the first reason she’s had to get a little dressed up in weeks.

“I was so excited today, because I got to actually get dressed and put on makeup and stuff,” she said. “I've just been lying in bed watching “Real Housewives,” and, like, barely eating because food sounds disgusting to me.”

Proffer was diagnosed last summer with inoperable cancer. When she announced it on her webpage, she wrote: “I don’t know what that will mean for my future. It is months, not years.”

Her artistic journey started years ago as a very young child.

“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. “And they kind of decided for me that I was going to be an artist, because I think their worst nightmare would be that I would become an accountant or something like that.”

As a teenager, Proffer developed an interest in portraiture – with a twist.

Fulvia of Terra [Arabella Proffer]

I really loved aristocratic portraiture that you see in museums and stuff like that,” she said. “So, I kind of got this idea of, you know, having hair dye and Mohawks and spike collars and the leather jacket and all that stuff. If this was the 1500s, you probably would do something outrageous like that just to show off, essentially.”

But, a little over 10 years ago, Proffer’s work began to change.

“I don't know,” she said. “One day, I just got sick of painting people.”

"Weekender" [Arabella Proffer]

Recognizable faces and bodies disappeared, replaced by surrealistic landscapes of floating blobs, with drips and dark tendrils, weaving menacing webs. The change happened about the same time that she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in her leg.

“And it was kind of strange, because I had done these shapes and stuff like for months before I even knew I had cancer,” she said. “And then, when they show me MRIs and scans, it actually looked exactly like what I've been painting.”

"Snow Sick" [Arabella Proffer]

But she kept at it, especially after these abstract images started selling.

“My mom doesn't like it,” Proffer said. “She thinks that they're what's making me sick, that I'm like doing these paintings and like it's somehow psychically making me sick in some way. But I don't feel that way,”

After a series of operations, it seemed like she was over the worst of it. But then came the diagnosis that the cancer had come roaring back. She’s now been through radiation, chemo and clinical trials.

"Carriers" [Arabella Proffer]

“Just being a patient for so long at Cleveland Clinic, when nurses or doctors talk to me, they think I'm a tech or something,” she said. “They think I work in the field just because I'm very versed in it now.”

And a visit to the hospital in the time of COVID has brought another level of surrealism to Proffer’s life. She described the empty corridors, filled with soothing New Age music, as something out of a dystopian novel. But, despite all she’s been through, she pushes forward with her life and keeps that smile as much as she can.

This past year, Proffer published a blog post with some advice:

Go to that gig, that lecture, that exhibition, dinner party, and go on that date. Don't be a dick and stay home watching TV because you're too lazy and tired from a job you don't like much anyway. I don't care if you're an introvert. Are you really going to say in your life, ‘Oh boy, I'm glad I stayed home scrolling through my phone,’ when you could have actually experienced something. Once this virus is gone, leave the damn house.

Some tips about life, coming from someone living on the edge of it.

[Arabella Proffer]

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.