Attracting a burgeoning fanbase for her mesmerising jelly sculptures, posted to the Instagram page @paid.technologies, Sharona Franklin’s complex gelatine works encase and suspend everything from delicate botanicals and fresh fruit to medical equipment and found objects fraught with symbolism. Exploring her personal mythology of disability, gender, class, bio-citizenship and botany, the multidisciplinary artist, writer and activist’s practice spans ceramics, textiles, writing and meme making. Living with a rare degenerative condition, Franklin’s diverse work explores her personal relationship with healing and wellness, as well as broaching matters such as the ethics of biopharmaceuticals, the use of animal cells in medicine, and disability visibility. To learn more about Franklin’s fascinating practice, her interest in jelly, and what she’s working on at present, Something Curated spoke with the talented artist.
Something Curated: Can you give us some insight into your background? How did you enter this field?
Sharona Franklin: I grew up moving around a few different small mountain and rural towns in Canada. I was pretty adaptable to change and always tried to make the best of each situation by putting a lot of my energy into my creativity. Resources were pretty limited so I salvaged a lot and found thrift store junk or random scraps of fabric and would sew or repurpose used and free items. Escapism and psychedelic means of viewing the world were really important to me from a very young age. I used to embroider mushrooms and smiley faces into my jeans in second grade. I also worked with food since my earliest days – we had a diverse family, I was often in the kitchen or taking care of the kids. I loved to make sculptural cakes and things, paint, draw, take photos. I wrote a lot of poems when I was young since words were the most affordable medium.
Cooking is a necessity; I never ate out at restaurants or anything. Food can be a form of cultural transmission, we never travelled and I would always imagine what foods in other places would taste like – I never went to a bakery growing up so I would try to envision these treats and then recreate them on my own in our trailer park. We hunted, fished, and gardened. We even ate freshwater clams we dug for in the river behind the autobody shop we lived in. I had worked with every aspect of food since a child whether it was a deer hanging in our yard, or watching my dad skin rabbits and make stew.
My parents were never together throughout my life but they each had different methods of surviving poverty which I took part in – my mom grew most of our vegetables because we lived in a near food desert in a mountain trailer park. And yes, trailerpark folks also have gardens! I would spend hours weeding and then cooking. There was only one grocery store, so it was hard to access affordable fresh food back then. Now I live in a mid-sized port city off the west coast and feel so lucky to have access to so much food. I also used a lot of psychedelic teas when I was young which were effective as a healing method, which was really useful for me dealing with childhood trauma. Psychedelics have influenced my work and life in so many ways I am grateful for.
SC: When did you first start making your gelatine sculptures and what draws you to the medium?
SF: Some of my sculptures are textile, some papier-mâché, paint or wood. I prefer to work with natural materials, things that have a lower eco-footprint and can mostly decompose, as well as digital works that are accessible to people all over, including memes. A lot of the gelatine sculpture ingredients used are of traditional medicines, Ayurvedic, Chinese medicines, that have been beneficial for my illnesses. Some of the ingredients have been expired pharmaceuticals as well as metal hardware, food products, medical equipment and psychedelic ephemera that is often narrative driven or disseminated notions of class, access and divisiveness that bureaucracy can play into for so many marginalised folk. I think finding myth in the structures around us can be reflected in gelatine, it carries so many political ties, it’s amoebic in it’s own sense.
I use multiple mediums, but gelatine specifically ties into the reclamation of bone/connective tissues, DNA, representative of my need to defend my medicinal means against capitalist-wellness based vegan culture. Vegan culture is not only ableist but also racist in that animal based diets are traditions for many cultures, and not only for medicine. As a person with childhood blood, degenerative tissue, joint and nerve disease, gelatine can function as a metaphor but is extremely nutritive medicinally as well. A lot of the biotech meds that have sustained me work by the means of recombinant DNA technology, thus using animal and human antibodies to change the way my body’s immune cells express themselves.
It was never explained to me as a youth that my system was a product of stem cell technology. I learned through medical pamphlets and eventually the internet what my treatments really were. At times I was also vegetarian, for means of the environment, eastern philosophies and animal rights. I struggled with the concept that I had animal produced antibodies inside my blood. But in time throughout my teens I started to understand the value of the treatments and grew less resentful towards the fact that my body never has been, and never will be vegan. A lot of my medications are also abortifacients, this idea of procreation of bodies and degeneration of bodies plays a role in my use of gelatine. I also strongly believe in the chimera of nature and the bionic. My disabilities have often been referred to as abnormal, alien or foreign, so I work to accept that I am both a product of science and nature combined. Living so rurally and having my body be so medicalised with toxic treatments is psychedelic in itself.
SC: Could you expand on your exploration of complex issues surrounding disability?
SF: Health and nature and technology connect us all, my childhood was deeply impacted by biotechnology, biopharm, medical innovation as well as new forms of disability politics which have changed drastically since I was young. Disability-inspiration porn, was common and often the only form of disability represented in the media. Social media and the internet had not yet existed for the disability community to connect. The thing that is different between disability and other forms or confounding forms of marginalisations is that, the communities around disability are difficult to procure. Whereas there are cultural centres for folks of different backgrounds to connect, but disability can be extra difficult to connect from a geographical context.
We are scattered and isolated at the same time. Due to accessibility barriers, it is difficult for us to physically connect to create a visceral community. One example is; pride parades and cultural parades of all sorts exist, though disability is never celebrated in a sense. Disability is very undiscussed, almost shamed into silence. But even if disability parades were to exist internationally, it would be physically difficult for the disability community to partake. The medical data that our disabilities contribute to connects us together on paper, but not until the internet could we really connect with one another ourselves outside of medical or institutional contexts.
SC: Can you tell us about what you are currently working on?
SF: I’m working on a long-term project which is a book, about environmental eco-toxins, class, poverty, disability, disease and mental illness. The barriers in which extreme low income folks and blue collar folks face, plants and connections to the land, trickling into the effects of misogyny and the pharmaceutical industrial complex. The book is about industrial complexes as a whole, more speaking and discusses law, bureaucracy, opioids. It’s a complicated project that I have been working on for about 5 years. I’m still making memes, writing theory and making sculptures but taking time to process where the world is at, and how I can produce work that is meaningful to share.
Also, at this moment my exhibition New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing up at Kings Leap gallery is still quarantined and decomposing, wilting away. The gelatine sculpture ‘Mycoplasma Altar’ encases expired immunosuppressive therapies, chemotherapeutics, antibiotics, interleukin antibody syringes, hydroxychloroquine, sunflower seeds, flowers, bolts, kidney beans, tapioca pearls, and almond extract, among many other things. Hydroxychloroquine is currently being promoted by Trump as a Covid cure, and is causing international deaths, as well as international shortages. The exhibition features hand stitched patches of an antibody quilt ‘Comfort Studies’ with bio-altars of my immune suppression treatment syringes, which were a cybernetic daily online performance in which I assembled a new altar to the treatment every 24 hours and shared via social media. There are also two handmade ceramic plates UV printed with images from the biocybernetic performance series.
SC: Are there any botanicals or other materials that you’re particularly enjoying working with at present?
SF: Words are lovely to work with because they are free and can be light to lift! I use talk to text dictation a lot of the time when I cannot use my arms. I have difficulty acquiring materials due to my physical limitations and financial barriers so when I create, the materials are provided for me physically, due to the quarantine I cannot very safely receive physical assistance right now. Since I am immunosuppressed and live with multiple co-factors that make me a high-risk person (like heart and lung disease), I have been solely alone in my apartment, writing has been the most accessible to me. Going outside without assistance isn’t easy for me at this time, so I haven’t been able to pick any flowers or botanicals. I haven’t left my bachelor for over a month at all. I would love to access some wild spring flowers, there is some lovely sagebrush that grows in my hometown. It would be so fun to make something with lichen also if I could access it.
SC: Is the edibility, or physical consumption, of the gelatine works of importance to you?
SF: It’s super important that my sculptures are edible, because I began working with gelatine as an ingested medicinal treatment. I’ve worked with papier-mâché, which is also just flour and water, paper, and salt dough as well. Domestic materials are important to me in that I’ve always created work near or close to my bed or kitchen. My treatments are held in the fridge, as are the gelatines. There is always this stigma behind contagiousness and disability, as well as dehumanisation of medical practices. I know some folks wouldn’t see medicine and food in the same frame but to me they have always been conjoined as means of survival. I recently made two ceramic plates with images of different pharmaceutical treatment altars on them, one plate is title ‘Amoebic Self Portrait of Pharmaceutical Preservation Methodologies’ and the other is titled ‘Hemichrome Plate’.
The exhibition plays on the tones of a home, a quilt, the bed, the food, the medicine, and the decomposition of the ‘Mycoplasma Altar’ (gelatine) sculpture, which was not served but was meant to mould though technically it is edible. A place to rest, warmth comfort and sustenance are some of the hardest things to achieve for disabled and marginalised folks. Some of us are sustained by not only food, but medicine, and that’s ok. We have to accept that some genetic variations simply cannot survive on food alone as sustenance. There were times in my life when my fridge only had state paid for genetic therapy needles in it as a teen, and yet I couldn’t afford food so the rest of my fridge was empty. Food is such a luxury as is medicine. But food can be grown, hunted and shared with our communities. Chemotherapeutics, biopharmaceuticals, antimalarials, those are controlled, and cloistered. What can save lives should be celebrated in all forms. Celebrating food and immunotherapies together as forms of sustenance is important to me, it’s important to be transparent in that nothing should be taken for granted.
SC: What do you want to learn more about?
SF: Life experience has given me most of my learning and education. I was never stable educationally, due to multiple factors involving class, illness, and at times having to work as a child cleaning houses, doing child care or working at an autobody shop. But I always loved to learn and share information when it was accessible to me as a kid. I think it’s really important for any artist or activist, especially white artists to educate themselves about racist structures, the medical apartheid and decolonising practices. I feel it’s crucial and responsible that I continue to try to learn. I know I have a small impact alone, but I would like to find more ways to use my privilege to implement change. I hope to have access to study bioethics academically one day.
Images courtesy Sharona Franklin