Arabella Proffer Arabella Proffer
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Arabella Proffer is not quite sure what to do with the standard introductory question, “How are you?”

“Honestly, I really am not sure how to answer that,” says Proffer, with a half-smile and a casual shrug.

The 43-year-old well-known Cleveland artist is sitting in the living room of her 10th floor Lakewood condo overlooking Lake Erie on a gray, blustery October day. She is all decked out in black, a sharp contrast to the bright bubble gum pink couch where she sits quite still with perfect posture. Her black-and-white cat, Tina, evokes the same color contrast, curled up sleeping next to Proffer on the pink couch, even as her similarly colored cat, Ike, casually saunters by.

When told she looks like the perfect image of health, Proffer laughs. 

“I know, right?” she says. “You would never know I have tumors wrapped around my spine, kidney, hip and shoulder.”

In July of 2020, Proffer was diagnosed with a rare and inoperable form of cancer, 10 years to the day since she was diagnosed with the same type of cancer in 2010. Doctors described it as a sarcoma tumor caused by a mutated gene- — the same kind of cancer that claimed the lives of multiple members of her family, including her father in 1984. 

“I grew up with this feeling of, Be careful, it’s what you might get when you get older,” remembers Proffer.

It was a theme that not only showed up in her life, but gradually made its way into her art. 

Proffer was born in Ann Arbor,  Michigan, where art was a constant of her childhood. Her two academic parents were avid collectors of Russian art and they brought their daughter to New York City to attend her first art show when she was 5. In this family where it was considered a “nightmare” to have a 9-5 job, Proffer’s future as an artist was all but predetermined.

“When I was 2, I drew a picture of an eye with a landscape in the iris, and suddenly everyone was saying, ‘She’s an artist. She’s a surrealist,’” says Proffer. 

Proffer describes herself as a bit of a morbid child, hanging out in cemeteries and being goth before goth was a thing in society’s lexicon. Even after the family relocated to California in the years following her father’s death, she was able to find fellow punk rockers. That aesthetic found its way into her art, as Proffer has become known for her pop surrealist portraits of tattooed, brightly-mohawked punks dressed as medieval royalty. 

“[Russian-Polish portraitist] Tamara de Lempicka was my idol, and I had a poster of one of her paintings right in between the posters of Jane’s Addiction and Depeche Mode,” says Proffer. “Her work hearkens back to the style I like about portraiture from the 1500s and 1600s, but it also has that art deco feel to it.” 

After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts, Proffer lived in Hollywood for a number of years, working for a photographer, exhibiting in group art shows, and co-founding the record label Elephant Stone Records with her husband Ben Vendetta. A chance offer to the couple in 2004 to housesit in Cleveland led to their quickly moving here full-time. Proffer says it was a most welcome change in environment and pace.

“Everything wasn’t a chain, there was very little traffic, the cost of living was incredible, and not everybody in Cleveland was a goddamned screenwriter or actor, so our pulses went down,” says Proffer.

She continued to create art in Cleveland, mostly focusing on her portraits. But in 2010, Proffer suddenly shifted her artistic focus for the simple reason that she “got tired of painting people.” The humans were replaced with surrealist landscapes populated by biomorphic floating blobs, dripping with organic material and riddled with tentacles, veins and tendrils protruding from those centerpieces. One such piece “Lasher” features what looks like a cross between an organ and a purple ribbon situated to the left of a majestic stage curtain, dripping blood onto a verdant green landscape, with black tendrils. 

What began as new method of expressing her art soon turned into prophecy. Proffer developed a mass on her leg and underwent several MRIs and scans to determine the exact nature of the mass. The resulting images on the scans were familiar. 

“I had been drawing these biomorphic shapes for months before I knew I had cancer, and the scans looked exactly like what I had been drawing,” says Proffer.

After a series of treatments and operations, the hope was that Proffer was cancer-free. Indeed, several years’ worth of annual scans confirmed the remission. For her 2019 follow-up, a new doctor on her treatment team told her that she could skip that year’s scan, as he determined her to be out-of-the-woods due to her age and vitality.

But in 2020, at the height of the pandemic, Proffer says she thought she was putting on weight from inactivity. Then her foot went numb, and her abdomen became more distended. She and her husband made a trip to the Lakewood Family Health Center emergency room. After a few scans, the staff immediately transferred her to Fairview Hospital where more testing was done. Finally, one doctor came in to break the news, albeit more brusquely than anticipated.

“He said, ‘You are riddled with cancer. We have never seen a woman more full of cancer than you,’ ” says Proffer.

The prognosis was grim: Proffer’s life expectancy was measured in months, not years, a much shorter amount of time, she believes, than if she had been scanned in 2019.

“The pain was so bad that I thought I would never get to paint again, and I had instant regret that I wouldn’t get to create paintings I had meant to make,” says Proffer.

So she immediately went to action, cataloguing every piece of art she created since high school, reserving a few pieces for her husband and family, but putting the rest up for sale. Her work quickly got snatched up, with more than 40 paintings sold to help support her healthcare and travel plans.  

“Watching pieces get sold was a little bit ghoulish but also a little bit flattering,” says Proffer. “Even my childhood bully bought a few pieces.” 

In October, she wrapped up a show at Revolution Gallery in Buffalo, which displayed more than 55 drawings she had sketched while watching marathons of The Real Housewives in between chemotherapy and radiation. What originally began as pencil sketches to exercise her hands turned into a whole series of portraits drawn in loose colorful lines evoking fashion illustrations of women with candy-colored hair.

“Yes, I can feel death over my shoulder, but there are still so many things I still want to do,” says Proffer. 

Nineteen pieces of Proffer’s work are currently preserved at the Artists Archives of the Western Reserve, a Cleveland facility and regional museum, and she plans to donate more from the Buffalo show.

“Her work not only reflects the mixed influences of a generation but the vast unexpected artistic talent our region has accumulated,” says Megan Alves, AAWR’s marketing and program manager. “Though herself a transplant to the city, Proffer’s paintings put a finger on the pulse of our Rust Belt reality, blending the outmoded opulence of a bygone era with the tenacious grit of rock ‘n’ roll.”

Proffer is taking things day-by-day. She starting a cannabis protocol run by a woman in New York City who owns a medical-grade CBD company and says she cured her own pancreatic cancer through suppositories and CBD elixirs.

“She is convinced that the shrinkage that I have had isn’t from the chemo but is from the fact that I have been using cannabis this whole time,” says Proffer.

In two weeks, Proffer will undergo a series of scans to determine how her cancer has progressed.

“If I’m still stable, then perhaps malignancy and I can coexist,” she says. “I don’t think I’ll totally survive this, but if I can get a few years, maybe five, that would suffice. Maybe I just need to keep myself alive long enough for science to catch up.”

A self-described “travel addict,” she is determined to go on as many trips as possible to Morocco, Greece, Scotland and Italy. Yet through it all, she has not stopped creating, even as the type of art she is producing has changed.

She has lost dexterity in her hands. She is doubtful that she will be able to complete some of the portrait commissions she has lined up, but plans to pivot to more abstract work. No matter what ends up on the canvas, she insists that she will keep creating. And even now, she wants people to keep making art, no matter the circumstance, just as she continues to do. 

“No good story ever started with someone saying, ‘It was a work night, so I went to bed early,’ ” says Proffer. “Leave your house. Do something. Create. Because you really never know what can happen.”

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