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Inside The Studio: Annika Rhea

Annika Rhea is a painter that breaks the traditional standards of fine art and dance with a stunningly unique approach to performance art. Using a technique she calls "Body Medium", she uses color, music and the body to capture the energy of the moment and imprint it on canvas through performance. In this creation of a piece, Annika becomes the artwork.

We had the privilege of sitting down with Annika for a conversation about her process, inspirations, and journey with acceptance. Read on to learn more in an exclusive interview with Annika Rhea.

Creative Strides - Acrylic / Body Medium on Canvas

Where did your interest in dance and movement first begin?

-I was three years old when I first started dancing. I was put into ballet classes because my sister was also a ballet dancer. Luckily, I was born quite flexible and so ballet came quite naturally to me. I had my first stage appearance at the age of three and had continued on that trajectory of being a dancer throughout my childhood years. By the age of 10, I was dancing with a company and had my first dance injury. I find all my injuries interesting because the path I’m on now was very much shaped by my past dance injuries. These injuries caused me to move away from

ballet, and I get involved in modern and contemporary dance where I then branched out into everything from Spanish to Hip Hop, to belly dancing. Regardless of the type of dance,

I have always loved movement. I have also always enjoyed the community, my teachers, and simply expressing myself.

I have a background in multiple different movement disciplines and I think that the works I create are largely inspired by two disciplines. One of these is the technique of dancer Isadora Duncan, who is known as the mother of modern dance. I am very inspired by her story of being the first woman to be a ballerina, who then gave it up to embrace more natural movement in her dance. Giving up ballet for a new approach, she would let her hair down, wear flowing fabrics, take off her shoes, and embrace the natural flow movement of her body. Drawing inspiration from Greek gods and goddesses and other mythology, Duncan also integrated a story arc in her pieces. The second technique which I drew inspiration from, was that of Martha Graham who was also another influential mother of modern dance. She too utilized a music score, mythology, and movement for storytelling. I was lucky to be a part of the Isador Duncan Youth Ensemble where I learned and found so much inspiration. This is where I learned to love the concept of telling a story using a musical score and embodiment practices.

I grew up drawing and painting as well throughout my early years. Most of my drawing was curvy linework that represented the flow of movement, music or energy. It wasn't until six years ago that I combined my love for painting with my love for dance. The combination of these two is where the real magic started to happen in my work, and I began carving out my own special approach as an artist.

I also have lots of experience painting as well throughout my early years. It wasn't until six years ago that I combined my love for painting with my love for dance. The combination of these two is where the real magic started to happen in my work, and I began carving out my own special approach as an artist.

Annika Rhea in her studio

You say your creative path has been shaped by your injuries. Can you tell me more about this?

-When I was 10 years old in ballet class, they put me on pointe too early (this is where a dancer stands on the very tip of their toes). I injured my foot and got diagnosed with Achilles Tendonitis. It was very painful and scary because the dance trajectory that was on was halted and I could no longer pursue pointe. Because of this, I chose to shift to modern and contemporary dance. In my senior year of high school, I tore a tendon in my foot, which was my second major dance injury. I missed all of my college auditions and was only able to send in a recorded tape of past performances. The George Washington University offered me a scholarship and that's where I came to meet one of my greatest teachers and inspirations, Maida Withers. She took an avant-garde approach to performance and encouraged the integration of dance with props and video art. This was my first exposure to this kind of approach to dance.

My third major dance injury, a hip labral tear, is what planted the seed that then spun me into doing what I'm doing now. I was a dance major in college, dancing for over 20 hours a week, and then suddenly I couldn’t dance at all. I sunk into a depression because I lost my physical and creative outlet. I had been a painter for many years but dance always came first and due to my physical limitation, I began to paint more often. I would envision that the canvas was a stage and I was the choreographer. I would look over the stage from an aerial view, and I would imagine tiny dancers twirling around and moving through space, entering and exiting the stage and pushing paint around the canvas. I then imagined myself moving around the canvas and following my movement patterns with a paintbrush. I eventually started to take these paintings seriously and began to show them in group exhibitions in and around NYC. It’s interesting looking back and seeing how my injuries played an important part in shaping who I am and what I do today.

Battle Within - Acrylic / Body Medium on Canvas

You create large-scale works through body medium performances in front of audiences but also do performance paintings in your studio without an audience. Does your approach/process for making a piece change when you're alone vs in front of an audience?

-There is a difference in the process when I'm in my studio compared to when I'm performing for an audience. In my studio, I usually have no audience and I focus on getting good footage of the process from an aerial perspective. When I get an aerial view of the process, the way in which I move around the canvas is different. I have to be mindful of the camera angle so I do a lot more floor work, sprawling out, and less standing. My live performances consist of a lot more standing work, with a concept, story arc, and a music score. When making a piece live I draw from the energy of the crowd and focus on the outward performative aspect of it. This is very different when I'm in my studio though, where I can put my own music on and approach the work more in a more casual, yet focused manner.

Annika Rhea creating in her studio

Can you tell me about the process of preparing for a performance, specifically your performance at the recent Clio Art Fair in New York?

-Yes of course! I performed at Clio for the exhibit entitled “What’s Your Fight”, and I took a bit of a new approach with this performance because I decided to push outside of my comfort zone and present something more daring and less aesthetically pleasing. My goal was to take the audience on an emotional journey through the darkest parts of the creative process such as fear, doubt, anger and fatigue, which are emotional states that we can all relate to. I wrote a storyline that expanded on a section of one of my main stage, full-length performance painting pieces called Journey. Journey centers on a metaphorical premise of an idea moving through the stages of the creative cycle. The journey is performed on a 50-foot-long canvas, split into six sections that represent the Formation, Exploration, Organization, Presentation, Depletion and Resurrection stages of the creative process. The piece I presented for Clio Art Fair, “Darkness Within”, was an extended version of the Depletion Stage into the Resurrection Stage from Journey.

I prepared for this piece by deciding what I wanted to embody and communicate with the audience. I started with exhaustion and fatigue and then moved through fear, doubt, depression, and anger. I used black paint to communicate the darkness overcoming my present reality. I then used red paint to symbolize the heart, and passion leaving my body. I then finished with gold paint to symbolize the reemergence of the creative spirit and the return to purpose.

I pieced together a score, which was composed of seven songs and sounds to accompany the premise of the piece. I pulled mostly from horror films and drama film scores. The piece then resolved itself with ethereal singing bowls and a woman’s voice.

I believe the depletion phase is important to acknowledge as a creator because you have an opportunity to either stop creating and turn around or keep pushing through. Once you do push through, I find that the idea you’re trying to manifest takes its final form. You're also realigned with the “why”, the purpose of why you're doing it in the first place and I find that if the “why” is strong enough, it can lift you up from the debts of the mind.

Journey - Acrylic / Body Medium on Canvas

You have mentioned in a video that in the last year, you've learned a lot about acceptance and its importance for your overall wellness and vitality. Has this journey with acceptance had an impact on your approach to your art/flow?

-Absolutely! I believe that finding and staying in flow is a constant process of accepting and adapting. The faster that you can move through this process of accepting what is and adapting to it, the more you will be able to live life at ease. Observing and exploring my art form, which is based in flow, is what brought me those teachings. As an action painter, you never quite know where the paint will land, that’s the magic of it. This is like life, where you can plan for things to happen but sometimes, they don’t happen quite like you expect. And then what do you do? You accept and adapt. For me, I paint and perform in flow and so the entire process is rapid creative problem solving, the paint lands and I accept and adapt to it and keep composing until I’m happy with the overall composition of the piece.

When I begin my performances, I meditate on the canvas to enter into my flow state. I’ve become fascinated with flow and how it exists physically, mentally, neurologically, and spiritually. I’ve been writing about the philosophy of flow and will be giving a speech at Burning Man this year entitled, "The Key to Finding Flow and Living a Vital Life". I believe that if resistance is a door and flow is an open door, acceptance is the key and I think this is applicable to all aspects of life.

Whisp - Acrylic on Canvas

What shows have you been in recently and what do you have coming up?

-As I mentioned, I participated in the Clio Art Fair in New York. I’ve also done quite a few private performances this summer where I create commissions, paintings, and live for clients. I just recently participated in Art Basel in Switzerland where I exhibited and performed twice in mid-June and I was awarded an exhibit extension and residency so I’ll be here for a few more weeks. As far as future projects, I’ll be performing and conducting a lecture at Burning Man and I’m currently piecing together a public ticketed series for the fall in NYC and the next dates for Journey. Lastly, I’ll be performing at Lowes and a few other places during Art Basel Miami. I post my performances and events on Instagram and on my website, if someone would like to attend, they can find the information there.

You can learn more about Annika and follow her journey via these links:


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