Alexandra Fanning speaks with Sharona Franklin about the importance of sustenance – both bodily and mentally – the joys of reality TV in quarantine, and meme activism.

In our series, The Zealous Set, we talk to the artists catching our attention about what they’re creating, watching, reading, and what they’re being inspired by. This week we chat with Sharona Franklin, who’s elaborate jellies hold a darker meaning behind their colorful quirkiness.

Food has forever been connected with health and medicine. Jelly in particular has been used in medicinal practice as far back as medieval times, before becoming the multi-layered architectural forms of the 1950s for table centerpieces. Activist and artist Sharona Franklin explores this connection in her beautiful and elaborate gelatin cakes, laboriously constructed in her tiny Vancouver housing and documented as @Paid.Technologies on Instagram.  

These colorful jellies appear zen-like and have an almost ASMR-for-the-eyes, soothing quality on first view, however upon closer inspection delve into disability politics, medical technology and discrimination.

Living with a variety of rare complex systemic diseases, including Still’s Disease, the artist’s work aims to challenge perceptions of chronic illness and what it means to be differently-abled. The gelatin signifies the cellular use of animals, not only in food but in the pharmaceuticals administered to her daily. 

Franklin’s sculptural practice varies from these medicinal food creations to functional fiber creations, ceramics and pottery plates, to poetry and zines. She experiments with net-art, memes and literature dedicated to disability awareness and fostering her community.

We talked to Franklin about the meaning behind her jellies, her experience with isolation during COVID-19 and how memes allow her to engage her community.

Alexandra Fanning: Tell us a bit about your practice.

Sharona Franklin: I would describe my practice as a fluctuating vessel. Ideas come to me and I work through them using different mediums. I’ve always felt a pressure and responsibility to use my time wisely. I’ve always created things that are functional, useful, and practical for others. 

To venture into strictly making conceptual art was difficult for me as I wanted the works to function practically, which is why making political work comes most naturally. Combining functional ideas with conceptual image. 

I’m still working to define my practice as I don’t fully believe it is where I would like it to be. There’s a lot of research that goes into my work so I would describe it as theory and research-based sculpture. I also make anti-art propaganda like my memes on @Hot.Crip, which are really estranged from my typical design and aesthetic found in the physical artwork. I work in multiple mediums interchangeably. Painting, wooden sculpture, salt dough sculpture, video, zines, memes, silk screen printing, fiber, clothing, quilts. I really prefer to work with natural, domestic or biodegradable and found materials for the most part. 

AF: Your now iconic gelatin sculptures or “bio-shrines” hold a lot more meaning behind them than simply gorgeous food objects. You’ve said that the use of gelatin references your own dependence on transgenic and stem cell-derived medications and represents a kind of alter to cellular use of animals, protesting a one-size-fits-all wellness culture.

SF: A lot of my work references bioethics and imbalances of the heavy toxicity in pharmaceuticals. I use multiple mediums, but gelatin specifically ties into the reclamation of bone/connective tissues. Using low-impact, biodegradable and salvaged materials allows my practice to highlight the tension between the bionic and often alien world of medicalization. The use of tactile and tender disposed items and fibers refer to a kind of second skin. 

Myth is a large part of my practice, as is bio-rituals, new medical and spiritual practices that bring us closer to our bodies and senses in the world as valuable disabled beings. A lot of my work explores a mythology of animals and humans as genetic chimeras, meaning a single organism is composed of multiple cells with foreign or distinct genotypes. Many of my own meds have been transgenic and chimeric.

AF: You also make plates and fiber pieces, can you tell us how these all come together?

SF: Yes! The plates and quilts speak to the idea of our vital needs, warmth, food, and a bed, which I’ve found most challenging to secure in life. Food, medicine and shelter are the most important things to build security from, all of which have been a struggle for me throughout my life. 

As a kid I lived in an area called Pottery Road. We used to dig up natural clay from the field and play with it all the time. Plates have been a connecting thread in my work since the beginning. From plates referencing text excerpts of William Blake’s poetry, to a large 1.5 meter paper mache physical plate sculpture I made ages ago titled ‘The Dish of Dissolution’. I envision poetry as a form of soul medicine, I love putting poetry on plates, as forms of served sustenance, just as food is. 

AF: Can you tell us a bit about how you present your work both in a gallery and online.

SF: Working with salvaged and natural materials, things that have a lower eco-footprint mostly decompose. I like to explore how my work is affected by the gallery space throughout an exhibition. I let the gelatin sculptures decompose in situ. The next two shows I have coming up will have a livestream component, so that viewers can see the decomposition of the sculptures in real time in an online format. The digital works are accessible to people all over, including the memes on Instagram.

AF: How are you faring / staying sane in our current quarantined world?  

SF: I won’t really know until we’re through it; it’s hard to get perspective until there’s distance from these circumstances. I wish there was more visibility and support for folks in more difficult circumstances than myself, like incarcerated folks, migrant workers, BIPOC within the pandemic. 

Things have been hard but my friends and chosen family have been supportive. I’m mostly homebound, and require a lot of assistance in my daily living and my studio practice. I create my work in my tiny living space as well. I live in SRO (single occupancy living) government subsidized housing due to my disabilities, living alone makes receiving assistance difficult during social distancing. Most of my treatments are from home, though I have had to put off medical treatments like iron IV’s and my medical tests. There are things like my arm braces, foot and leg orthosis’ that are broken and cannot get repaired since the orthoses workshops and clinics are closed. Being high risk and immunosuppressed makes it a little more isolating and high key stressful. I use liminal online space to show my practice online. I’m homebound 95% of the time so in some ways it’s not too different.

AF: Where are you finding inspiration right now?

SF: To find a wormhole in this pandemic-Covidien time is what I’ve been most inspired by. We are all living in washes and waves of fear and confusion and I’ve been working to tap into my adaptable rhetoric. The forms I’ve always been inspired by; nature, wildflowers, creatures, alchemy, the melting and melding of biochemical and sapitential. I think it’s from growing up in isolated wooded and rural areas, and also opposition to how I am forced to live in a city for medical access. I have no balcony or yard so I can only imagine nature during quarantine. I’ve been able to revisit a large body of work I’ve been too busy to spend time with, my old writing has been fun to go back to and work on.

AF: What are you listening to right now?

SF: I listen to a lot of Italo-Disco, Soul, Old Country and Folk, R&B, folks like Roky Erikson, Alice Coltrane, John Cale, sometimes more meditative music like Hiroshi Yoshimura.

AF: What are you reading / binge watching?

SF: I love embarrassing questions haha, I’ve been binge watching Married at First Sight! Also Kath and Kim. I’ve already watched all of Love After Lockup.

AF: What’s next for your artwork, anything exciting to share?

SF: I’ve been working on two exhibitions which will be accessible to the public at New York’s Printed Matter and Grunt Gallery in Vancouver, and another through a window for Simon Fraser University Audain Gallery. The window exhibition will be on East Hastings street in my neighborhood. Downtown Eastside Vancouver is a very precarious neighborhood politically, and is central to the major community of houselessness, missing women and the opioid epidemic. Topics which have affected my life greatly. 

The window work will be reflective of some of the local politics that are challenging two folks with disabilities and mental illness living in my neighborhood. I’ve also been coordinating a local mutual aid group called Care Club. And then I’m also working on a book and continuing my memes for @Hot.Crip.

A Jelly on display at Kings Leap Gallery earlier in the year