Show Arabella Proffer images of punk-rock tattoos, and the prolific Cleveland artist will create Elizabethan-esque portraits of the European aristocrats with whom she’s had a lifelong fascination. And rightfully so, since tattoos and Mohawk hair styles in 16th-century Europe were considered de rigueur of the times. “They would have been considered status symbols for the very rich in centuries past,” Proffer says. “Thus, they’d want to flaunt them in their commissioned portraits. If marketed as a luxury, you can bet the royal courts of Europe would have taken it to an extreme.”
In her new 104-page book, “The National Portrait Gallery of Kessa,” which drops in bookstores December 12, Proffer has plumbed the depths of her wild imagination to paint surreal impressions of the rich and privileged in the 1600s. The oils on linen depict hoidy-toidy characters like the exotic horsewoman Varuca, the eldest daughter of the Marquess of Terra. There’s champion archer and accomplished musician Elizabeta, whose fortune was squandered by a gambleholic brother. And the tragic Violente, who stopped dyeing her hair and set a national fashion trend after her husband died.
The book also documents the horrifying nightmares of old medicine. The subject fascinates Proffer, who was diagnosed in 2010 with liposarcoma, a rare form of cancer that affects a mere 2.5 of every one million people worldwide with a survival rate of five years. Her health plight, including the amputation of her leg, prompted her to research shoddy medical treatments between the Middle Ages and the 18th century. “This series was a good way for me to work out my anger and be even more thankful that what I’m going through is nothing compared to old remedies and techniques,” Proffer says. “My art and interests were in the way society lived in the past, but with emphasis on the defiant, glamorous and eccentric — not daily strife. You could have been rich, important or beautiful. But if (you were) sick, you would still receive brutal or worthless treatment.”