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Fran Apicella with some of her recent paintings (© AAH/Alan Wright)

Published on 1st December 2021...

Francesca Apicella is a self-taught artist from Slinfold. Her work promotes strong feminine attributes, partly inspired by her own struggles with long-term illness. Fran discusses her journey and hopes for the future… 


Fran enjoyed art at Christ’s Hospital School and having regretted not taking the subject at A’ level, studied Software Development for Animation, Games and Effects at Bournemouth University. However, an illness that started when she was 16 gradually worsened and halted her progress, eventually forcing her to leave. Fran says, “I would go to bed and sleep for so long that when I woke, I wouldn’t know what day it was. Sometimes, I literally couldn’t walk unaided and needed help from friends. The illness was a mystery and some believed it didn’t exist at all. Being female and a teenager made me easy to dismiss.”


Fran’s struggles with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and PoTS, an abnormality of the heart that can trigger dizziness, led to five largely bed-bound years from 2014. As she lost faith in mainstream health services, Fran sought alternative opinions and met a doctor who not only helped with a diagnosis, but suggested she pick up a paintbrush. “Hearing somebody finally tell me there was something wrong made a huge difference,” says Fran. “I always knew there was, but endured so many frustrating years without a diagnosis. This wonderful doctor encouraged me to take up art too, so I went to TK Maxx for cheap oils and bought a canvas from The Works.”


Due to her many allergies, Fran wore goggles and gloves to protect her skin from the paint. Her first effort was a portrait of her grandmother, based on a black and white photograph. This vintage style has become a recurring theme in Fran’s output, but it’s often strikingly contrasted by bursts of colour, as well as mathematical or algorithmic elements that draw on the technical skills she developed at university. Fran says, “Although I’m not religious, I have always had a strong resonance with religious iconography and their transcendent, otherworldly qualities. My portraits are inspired by classical Victorian photography, as they tended to create haunting expressions that offer an insight into a person’s character.”


From a personal perspective, Fran’s most important work to date is ‘The Journey to finding Philautia’. Philautia comes from the Greek word for self-love, something the artist hasstruggled with. Although some have noted a resemblance to Rachael from 1982 film Blade Runner, the woman depicted is inspired by a Victorian photo, while the background is a mandala, a diagram representing wholeness and the organisational structure of life. Roses symbolise love and also the fragility in the human psyche. “This was my gateway piece into loving myself again,” says Fran. “The idea was that physically creating something beautiful would help me appreciate my broken body, despite its flaws. I wanted to create a powerful image that represented my internal struggle. There is something oddly comforting about the dark. It is surprisingly easy to live there and lose your way. That’s why the journey of self-love can be incredibly difficult; a rollercoaster of emotion that requires courage.”


This theme is evident throughout Fran’s work to date. ‘Aeonia’ is based on a theme of eternity, symbolising her desire to paint forever, while ‘Serpentina’ is about rebirth, representing Fran’s journey from darkness. She uses smooth metal or wooden panels as a canvas, helping to bring out vibrant colours. While the women depicted may seem familiar, they are not famous faces and Fran often creates different expressions from those in the source material, as well as adding contemporary elements such as lace clothing and iconography. Fran says, “I believe there’s merit in trying to get create photo-realistic paintings, but that’s not what I want to do. I like giving somebody who doesn’t and cannot exist a personality, with strong feminine attributes that perhaps others can identify with.” 


Although Fran still has difficult days when she’s unable to work, painting has given her a new lease of life. Recently, she hosted her first virtual exhibition, gaining followers and meeting other artists. Now she aims to grow her portfolio of original work and limited edition prints, while welcoming commissions and submitting work to local exhibits by groups such as the Association of Sussex Artists (ASA). Fran says, “I am much happier now and feel I have a purpose. I was completely lost. But now, every day, I wake up thinking about creating something and that brings me joy. Art has proved to be my salvation.”


Further information visit www.francescaapicella.com