"Leave the Damn House" — Cleveland Artist Arabella Proffer Talks About Life, Cancer, Work, and Her Latest Book

click to enlarge Proffer - Photo by Brandy Schillace
Photo by Brandy Schillace

“Leave the damn house” has become the personal mantra for Arabella Proffer, the Cleveland artist who has dealt with cancer for the last decade and who received a terminal diagnosis in 2020, right in the middle of the global pandemic.

Proffer has met the disease resurgence head on and has continued to exhibit a vitality and resiliency, traveling, working when able, and recently putting together an exhibition called 'Drawing Through Reality' that's just wrapping up in New York at the Revolution Art Gallery. (Some of the pieces included in it are still for sale here.)

Lately, Proffer did a video series with the Lakewood Public Library earlier this month where she discussed her latest work and her book “Lips, Eyes & Hair,” which catalogues her collection of portraits from 1999-2019.

“This was done for posterity,” Proffer said. “I was in-between chemo and radiation realizing a lot of my figurative and portrait work hadn't been seen all in one place. The one common thing they all had was lips, eyes, and hair.”

Her portraits have combined rebellious punk rock fashion with refined Elizabethan portraiture until 2010, when her work pivoted towards biomorphic surrealism spring-boarded from an exhibition in Baton Rouge, Louisiana where all the weird, imaginative and fanciful pieces sold.

These pieces sometimes depict what look like globular larva from mysterious species and still life works of exotic interplanetary cornucopia of fruits and vegetables conjured up from Proffer’s overactive imagination.

Her first cancer diagnosis came around that time.

As she recovered, Proffer had a new lease on life and nothing was going stop her from living. Having being basically bed-ridden for a long time, she chose to take her life back, traveling as much as possible, exhibiting, and building her brand while releasing several books including: “The National Portrait Gallery of Kessa: The Art of Arabella Proffer” (2011); “Gurls” (2016-17); and "The Restrooms of Cleveland" (2019).

Proffer is a music fanatic and she and her husband Ben Vendetta are known to spin as a duo DJ couple and together founded the Elephant Stone record label in 2002. 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.

“I had initially meant to go to film school because I'm a good cinematographer and I love editing. I also did a little animation but that I wasn't very good at. But before I even graduated I was selling work off the wall at CalArts to faculty and staff, so I was very good about seeking out group shows," she said. "Despite my trying for film jobs, I was getting work in the art world instead. In the end I think painting always comes first because I'm constantly still learning when it comes to breakthroughs. It is different working with oil paint and learning software — software has a limit. If something comes too easy to me, I move onto something else. Painting means you are always learning.”

She has been vocal about her cancer treatments and diagnosis, blogging about embarrassing moments during treatment, beauty products that make you feel “not gross,” and offering general advice on hospitalization during chemo and radiation treatments. She continues hospice-style palliative care to manage pain, along with moderate radiation to shrink her tumors. Her husband left his job of 15 years to give her fulltime care. (There is a GoFundMe page to raise funds to help them get along.)

“I'm not scared of dying at all. Travel is an addiction of mine, so having trips planned out helped a lot. I also think getting through the insane amounts of pain; only now do I understand some people don't make it because they can't handle the pain anymore, especially with what chemo does to you.”

Proffer is unable to work much these days but her fans and loved ones continue to care and hold on to precious hope for her.

“You can still do things despite fear,” Proffer said. “You can still manage to juggle despite ADHD. And you should get busy living because it can be taken away from you in an instant. People ask how so much crazy stuff has happened, or how I have so many amazing stories. I leave the house! Amazing things happen when you go out into the world that won't happen to you online.”

When I asked Proffer if she had anything to add, she responded, “Don't let death get in the way of your dreams.”