Arts

There's so much more than a satisfying wobble to Sharona Franklin's incredible jelly sculptures

The Vancouver artist uses jelly to explore her experience with chronic illness.

The Vancouver artist uses jelly to explore her experience with chronic illness

So jelly. Art by Vancouver's Sharona Franklin. (Instagram/@paid.technologies)

There is, per the slogan, always room for Jello, and Sharona Franklin understands the dessert's wobbly yet unwavering appeal.

It draws people in, Franklin says, because it's beautiful, because it's comforting, because it's familiar. That animal-brain appeal has practically made it a sub-genre of ASMR — a dessert as delicious as it is meme-able — and in the last few years, the Vancouver artist has made herself a conjurer of jiggling molds and domes and triple-layer extravaganzas. Her gelatin sculptures, which have their own much-followed Instagram account (@paid.technologies), could kick the aspic of any layered rainbow square.

In one of her posts, a halo of 14 karat gold is suspended inside a rose-coloured jelly bubble. Champagne-hued towers of various sizes and shapes reveal fruits and fish and figurines and flowers. The work is always edible, she says, even though the gallery pieces aren't actually meant to be nibbled. Still, they're all engineered to be delicious, tempting you to taste and tap and scoop — before considering the story she's telling.

Art by Sharona Franklin. Canadian thistle jelly with heliopsis and baby's breath on a papier mache armature. (Instagram/@paid.technologies)

Franklin, 32, lives with a variety of chronic illnesses. "Sometimes I don't really like talking about it because it feels weird to just say a few and not the others," she says. "But my main diagnosis is juvenile systemic idiopathic arthritis." Also known as Still's Disease, it's an autoimmune condition that attacks and inflames the joints, ultimately damaging bones and cartilage in the entire body.

"Some of [the sculptures] are sort of homages to difficult experiences in my life," she explains. "When you're a kid and you have diseases, people are afraid of you. I felt I had to hide it. If I did share, sometimes people would just pity me, or worry a lot, or fear me. Or they would romanticize it or they would not really take it seriously." 

For most of her 20s, Franklin says she tried to keep her health private. But in the last few years, her art — which extends into writing, sculpture and a variety of community-building Instagram accounts — has explored the day-to-day realities of living with disability.

"I felt like not telling people was really detrimental and I was trying to deconstruct all the reasons in which why young people don't disclose," she says. "It's this idea of radical acceptance — that this is how it is and hopefully if I share, symbolically, some of the experiences I live with, the people who are attracted to my life, or want to be in my life, will be more accepting of it."

There's an "invisibility," she says, around illness and disability. "I feel like it always created this wall." And when she makes a new piece, it's a way to turn those walls into "more of a window" — possibly one made of rosehip tea Jello.

Ponderosa pine mini euophoria glaze CBD cake and mini-bulb jelly by Sharona Franklin. (Instagram/@paid.technologies)

As a result, her sculptures can read a bit like secret diaries. Sprigs of foraged wildflowers like thistle and chrysanthemum might be hiding inside; they're plants she'd pick in her backyard growing up. She's currently planning to set "industrial bits" of metal in gelatin. ("I spent a lot of time in an autobody shop as a kid," she explains.)

But it's the jelly itself that winds up being the most loaded symbol — and the most accessible, too. On one level, it's a stand-in for the human body. Gelatin's made out of animal bits, after all (as any vegan will scold you). It's fragile, but lively. It deteriorates as soon as it's out of the fridge, wiggling toward the grave like us all. (In gallery settings, Franklin leaves the sculptures to naturally rot.)

But she doesn't ignore the best thing about the stuff. Dancing dessert? It's basically happiness on a plate. And Franklin likes to call her stuff "celebratory." Think of them as extreme treats for extremely ordinary occasions. Birthdays come to mind, she says. ("I think for a lot of people with degenerative diseases and life-threatening diseases, birthdays are a really big thing.") And they're a nod to the joy of eating and making food, especially when she's sick or bed-ridden. "It can be one of the only activities that you do when you're ill," she notes.

Edible sculpture by Sharona Franklin. (Instagram/@paid.technologies)

Gratitude is a big part of the work, she explains, and she's thankful for the simple comforts and necessities of life. Medication, for example, is definitely one of her basic needs. "A lot of people pray, or they have altars for things that make them feel good," she says, "so I started making these daily rituals around my treatments." Since childhood, she's taken a variety of biologics. Just like gelatin, those meds are derived from animal parts.

"Taking these medications is a very big privilege, so the fact that a lot of people like myself have this privilege, and don't acknowledge it, is kind of strange. It's kind of shunned or pitied, but actually, it's a really positive thing," she says. "I'm really lucky. Let's try to celebrate that."

Franklin will be bringing a few of her "shrines" to King's Leap gallery in New York starting Feb. 29. The show, New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing, is her first solo exhibition in the States, and in addition to porcelain plates and a hand-made quilt — pieces that also reference her experience with disability and treatment — she'll be showing a fresh jelly piece. It'll be garnished with baby's breath and set on a papier maché plinth. (Because jellies don't exactly travel well, she'll have to produce the thing out of her New York Airbnb. If all goes to plan, it'll pop out of the mold at roughly half a metre tall, and she's been running tests out of her "tiny little one-room" apartment in the meantime.)

Lucid champagne grape jelly with fresh picked mint leaves and baby's breath sprigs. Art by Sharona Franklin. (Instagram/@paid.technologies)

That towering dessert could be the most irresistible piece in the show, and Franklin knows there's a "flashiness" to her jellies — an aesthetic appeal that even luxury brands are gobbling up. Opening Ceremony commissioned some artful confections for their spring campaign. (A previous conversation with Gucci met a more controversial end. When their Cruise 2020 campaign featured a bunch of jewel-toned jelly molds, Franklin's fans cried foul. She, in turn, revealed the fashion house had, indeed, contacted her — but ultimately hired a set designer to make the things instead.)

But simply being dazzled by the jellies' sticky-sweet surface misses the point. "In creating these physical products that people desire, I think I'd really like people to consider the labour behind the scenes," says Franklin. "People find my aesthetics maybe more digestible than what's going on inside my body, so I think about that."

Flora and porcelain fauna. Jelly art by Sharona Franklin. (Instagram/@paid.technologies)

Sharona Franklin. New Psychedelia of Industrial Healing. Feb. 29 to March 28. King's Leap, New York. www.kingsleapprojects.net

About the Author

Leah Collins is the Senior Writer at CBC Arts.