Future / Past: A reflection on Friendship with Arabella Proffer

Arabella Proffer, at work in her studio. Photo by John Petkovic.

Arabella and I shared a studio in the Screw Factory for almost eight years. We met in 2004 at Capsule, a futuristic Lakewood bar with glossy white walls where her husband Ben DJ’d and she bartended. Their record label Elephant Stone had signed a band from Cleveland, so they decided to see what the north coast had to offer, moving here from Los Angeles. Our friendship began when she rescued two hamster-sized kittens; we each adopted one and started having cat playdates. Spike and Milkshake brought us together on a more personal level, but our shared love for a broad range of topics kept things going: obscure royal genealogies, eighties music, long-running in-jokes… her phone number was one digit off from the local CVS pharmacy, so she’d yell “pharmacy!” buzzing me in on her apartment door phone. It would take me days to list all our in-jokes. Overpronouncing the word “marinara.” A devotion to afternoon court TV shows, particularly Judge Judy, gave us many catchphrases including “never co-sign for a motorcycle!” Drawing an artichoke, labeling it “Fuck yeah, artichokes!” and hanging it over my desk… the list goes on.

When we first moved into the studio (filthy, bare studs, 10-ft windows coated in decades of industrial grime) the first thing we prioritized was putting up drywall to display her paintings. Our desks were set diagonally across the studio from each other, her back to the windows for natural light. For years I saw her paintings every time I looked up, slowly becoming a part of my visual DNA. She modeled for my knitting books. We devised ways of teaching fashion illustration online together long before the ease of modern classroom platforms: she was always looking ahead. It came as no surprise when she absorbed everything there was to know about NFTs, then developed a how-to guide targeted at her fellow fine artists. Arabella may have worked in traditional oils, carefully building up luminous layer after layer of paint to get exactly the effect she wanted, but she was modern, too. Her ability to spot opportunities, synthesize information in a creative way, and find ways of applying it was second to none. 

Arabella, in her studio. Photo by John Petkovic.

Arabella was always advanced for her age, though. As a child, the story goes, she would run downstairs to the Ardis office in their Ann Arbor home to get paper for drawing, and the adults took notice of her skill even in her pre-school years. Ardis, her parents’ celebrated publishing house, brought underground Russian literature to the west. It was another early and distinctive source of inspiration. Several times she traveled to Russia alongside her mother Ellendea (herself an absolute powerhouse). You can see it in some of Arabella’s early paintings: onion domes and spires, Tamara de Lempicka-esque art deco abstractions. She developed a taste for over the top, baroque visual excess: a Moscow subway station with its tiles and chandeliers was more her style than a bland American one. An art school era photo of her with a lace fan and a mohawk visually predicts her Kessa portrait series. The artist informed her art, always.

She started as an animation student at Cal Arts; this sharpened her visual acuity and gave her neuron-quick video editing skills. Watching her college film appearances it’s astonishing how much of the fully-formed artist Arabella became is on display, like seeing a full-blown peony flower spring forth from a tight ball that encases all the petals already there.

When we started to share studio space she was deep in her medieval pastiche portraiture series, and one by one they began to cover the walls. She wrote intricate biographies for each, once getting into an argument at a gallery show with someone who was convinced the faux biographies were actual history, maintaining this belief even after Arabella explained she’d made them up. This later became a book project (The National Portrait Gallery of Kessa) that we designed and published together.

My husband and I got married at the Screw Factory—not in the wedding rental space, but in our photographer neighbor’s clean studio. While waiting for everyone to get there (about five people total), Arabella and I took up our respective places and kept working. Work work. I was shipping books, she was detailing a small painting. Her husband Ben walked in, saw us and asked if perhaps we should be doing “girlier things?” I was getting married in a hour? No, we said. We were dressed. Might as well keep working while we wait. We were both pretty intense… though some may use different words to describe us. We suited each other just fine.

Her cancer diagnosis over a decade ago anticipated the biomorphic paintings she was working on until shortly before she died. She’s spoken in numerous interviews about painting something resembling the initial tumor’s shape, delicate tendrils reaching out towards bone. This was before it was ever diagnosed or visualized. Had it reached that bone, I would have been writing this tribute many years earlier. She really hated the “warrior” terminology that a lot of cancer patients embrace. It wasn’t a battle. For Arabella, cancer was more of an annoyance, something that was getting in the way of what she wanted to do. So she wasn’t going to let it… and she didn’t, for almost a decade and a half. 

Every setback, such as getting a piece of her leg removed, came with an equal determination to return to work. For months she couldn’t drive, so I picked her up, and she climbed our concrete studio stairs one at a time. Right foot. Left foot. Pause. Next step. Right foot. Left foot… while I hovered behind, wondering if I’d be able to catch her if needed. In recent years, she lost some of her fine motor control and started doing more digital art with an Apple Pencil. But then, determined to paint again, she figured out a way to use large grips on her brushes and got back to it. You can see them in some of her final YouTube videos. 

Her documented last wishes were particularly hilarious and as detailed as one of her paintings. Probably the best part for me was learning that she had in fact designed a commemorative t-shirt for her future party. It wasn’t a running joke after all! The files were sitting there waiting alongside our other instructions. And so we’ll be printing them, and donating any proceeds above printing costs to the Artists Archive of the Western Reserve, which held her final show a few weeks before her death. Her website arabellaproffer.com will remain online. And I will be here to ensure her legacy lives on.

Shannon Okey has donated her fee for this reflection to the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve.

The opinions expressed on CAN Blog are those of the individual writers. Art is somewhat subjective. Well, somewhat. But yes, everybody's a critic.

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