FACING CANCER HEAD ON: ARABELLA PROFFER
At a time when life has certainly never been more surreal, frightening, and unsure, painter Arabella Proffer is facing the unthinkable. The well-known artist is living with terminal cancer, during a global pandemic, and she is doing it with a strength, determination, and grace that few could muster. But if you know Arabella well, this is hardly surprising: with a commanding personality, cutting sense of humor, and an immense talent to boot, Proffer is an extraordinary human being who will not be trifled with—even when the odds are against her.
Proffer holds a BFA in fine art and experimental animation from the California Institute of the Arts, and lived for years in Los Angeles before moving to Cleveland in 2004. She is perhaps best known for her sleek portraiture: highly realistic portraits of punks and princesses, romantically dark vampiric lords, and tattooed ladies. But her pop surrealist portraiture shifted to the backseat around 2010, when she began painting largely abstract organic, tentacle-shaped blobs. It was around that time that a rare form of cancer was discovered in her leg. Proffer recalls: “After seeing the MRI, my tumor was a perfect oval sphere set in my thigh, and had thin tentacles with tiny heads wandering throughout my leg. It struck me immediately that it all looked exactly like these paintings.” Those blobs immediately took on a new, much heavier meaning than originally intended.
What were once simple studies in abstraction evolved into highly complex compositions of soft bits, tentacles, squishy things, leaf-like growths, and other oddly familiar vegetal and organic matter—oozing, leaking biomatter, yet strangely beautiful. Works like Lasher are actually set on what appears to be a stage, the curtain pulled back to reveal the leading lady in this bizarre show—a cellular mass with dripping pink fluid, completely tied up and encircled with black tendrils. The distant landscape becomes a backdrop for this strange curtain call. Many exhibitions of this body of work followed, in Cleveland, Akron, Pittsburgh, New York and beyond, and she received an Ohio Arts Council Grant through the Artists with Disabilities Access Program.
Beating cancer required the removal of a portion of her upper leg, but Proffer was in the clear, or so she thought, until last summer. What started as an isolated incident of a very rare kind of sarcoma in her leg had spread throughout her blood stream, and her body was now completely riddled with cancer. Ten years later, the prognosis is terminal.
Almost immediately after receiving her diagnosis, Proffer sprang into action, planning what would happen to a career’s worth of artwork after she was gone. Having watched friends die suddenly and their family and friends pillage their art, or worse, she was intent upon taking charge of her legacy, one painting at a time. In a tiny notebook with tiny handwriting, she has kept track of every single painting that she’s ever made, from high school onward. She has a will; everything is planned and accounted for, even the music at her funeral. Her husband will keep her website going and close all her social media accounts.
Despite the fact that Proffer and her husband have health insurance, they are facing an exorbitantly expensive battle with cancer, and he has had to leave his job to become her full-time caregiver. When news of her situation got out, the response was overwhelming—many looked to support Proffer by buying her art. So much so that she has nearly sold out of her existing oeuvre: “I have open edition prints available, I have books, there’s some drawings that are still for sale, a few paintings. I was happy that people bought so much of my art. When I got my diagnosis, my brothers came to help and I put them to work—wrapping up paintings and stuff.” Additionally, a GoFundMe was started on her behalf to help offset some of their financial burden.
“My advice to artists about estate planning,” said Proffer in a recent interview, “is that I used to hate signing my name on paintings because I thought it was distracting, but you really do need to. The other thing I am finding is that technology changes, but no matter how you do it, get good images of everything you’ve ever done—including exhibition shots.” As she is currently wading through a Dropbox filled with thousands of images of varying quality, over dozens of years, the need for some kind of consistent documentation and organization is apparent.
Despite the limitations of her illness, Proffer is still working when she can. “I’m trying to lay out a little book of all my portraits—all the random portraits I’ve done, plus commissions. I’m trying to see if a publisher could take it on.” In 2020 she was accepted into the Permanent Collection of the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve. She also received a Robert Rauschenberg Foundation Award and a Satellite Fund Award from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts administered through SPACES.
When thinking about the future, and possibly applying for a project-based grant at SPACES, she said, “I could apply for that, but I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t know what my energy level’s going to be, I was supposed to die in August [of 2020]. That’s what they told me. And then my oncologist said if we could get you to a year, that would be good. So I don’t know what to do about making plans, especially when there’s financial ramifications tied to it.”
Proffer is receiving hospice-style palliative care to manage the pain, and radiation to shrink her tumors as much as possible, and it seems to be working, at least for now. In July 2021 she will reach that one-year mark mentioned by her oncologist. For someone who was given months to live, Proffer has demonstrated the strength of character and ferocity of a warrior. If anyone can beat the odds, Arabella Proffer can, while kicking ass and taking names.
To order Proffer’s new book of portraits, “Lips, Eyes & Hair” click here.
To donate to the Arabella Proffer Life With Terminal Cancer Fund, click here.