Artist Spotlight: Spoken in Red

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I had the delightful opportunity to interview Jennifer Rhoades, the über talented photographer and digital artist of SPOKEN IN RED. 

Jennifer is an exceptionally creative artist whose work pushes the boundaries of  conceptual photography and digital art profession to create images that are stunningly emotional, edgy, original, and most of all captures brave, beautiful, strong and uniquely exquisite portraiture.  

I will cut straight away to my interview questions showcasing Jennifer’s amazing artistry as well as personable details of her work which inspires us to pursue and create innovative and imaginative photography. 

Remember your thoughts are hugely appreciated, so please feel free to comment and share!

All imagery in this post © Jennifer Rhoades / Spoken in Red. All rights reserved.

“What I think I am most drawn to is the story behind the images, the suggestions, the surrealism, the beauty beyond touch, the beautiful alien, but also the emotions in them.  Not just pretty pictures, theyare multi-layered in a deep set psychology of the soul.”



Who is Spoken in Red?

My name is Jennifer Rhoades, from Raliegh, North Carolina, and I go by Spoken in Red as my “artist” name. My vocation is a ballet teacher, director, choreographer, photographer and digital artist.  I once was a dancer but those days have been over for quite some time–first due to injury, then to just time itself.  You just cannot dance at such a high level and grow older. Ballet kicks you out when youth fades. She is cruel, cold queen like that.

I have constant wanderlust.  I love having new experiences and I love to feel the nuances of different cities, states, countries, and cultures.  I currently shoot with a Canon 7D.  I started out with basically a point and shoot Fujufilm camera, later graduated up to a Rebel Xsi–quite a nice little camera, and then the 7D.  I use Photoshop CS5 and a few Topaz plug-ins.  I started out with Paint Shop Pro and think that’s a good program to start with as it is very intuitive and user friendly–just slow if you are using several layers.

Tell us how you have developed your style, did your photography career have a significant defining moment and how you hope to see your style evolve as an artist.

I’m not sure if I even have a set style yet.  I am truly such a neophyte.  I had started photography out of necessity when I was a director of my own dance company and had ZERO money to run it.  I wore every single hat you could possibly wear in running a company–director (both executive and artistic), choreograph, dancer, fund raiser, administrator, costume designer, prop maker, schedulist, liaison for one and all, promo person, etc etc.  It was exhausting.

I started out by actually borrowing a camera from one of the dancers and taking pictures for promo posters, performance programs, logos, and tickets.  My first photo program was the very archaic program called Photodraw.  It was caveman-era as far as photo editing programs go but a good place to cut my teeth.  I fell in love with what you could do with photos but still had no clue what was out there.  Well, eventually complete burnout snuffed out my fires for the company and I abandoned it.  I had only been married for a couple of years and all I had to offer my husband was exhaustion.  I felt as though people were pulling me in every direction without even seeing ME.  I felt so hollowed out by the time I left. My sense of self had been drained from me and all that I wanted to give so freely just became something ripped out of me and horded away.

I abandoned the company, I left the studio I was teaching, and I went to another one thinking that this would be a better fit.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.  What I had experienced at the studio prior seemed to have exploded exponentially and I was already operating at a horrible deficit.  While I was at that studio, I started taking self portraits.  There was guilt associated with it because you are considered vain if you are taking pictures of yourself, right? But these weren’t selfies.  I took a few for Facebook shenanigans but the ones I had not shown to anyone, yet, had a completely other dimension to them.  Every time I took a picture, it seemed to affirm that I actually existed where I had been drained into being nothing but a ghost. Every time I did this, this setting the timer, this getting in front of the lens, it became a performance for me just like being on stage.

It’s odd to say but every time I did this, I got some sense of myself recovered.  I became less of a ghost and more a flesh and blood person.  When I had transitioned out of being a dancer into a full time instructor (a very, very difficult transition), I was beginning to have the same feeling of being erased, of becoming less and less substantial.  I guess I began to find that again with self-portraits.  It’s funny because I feel that I have been letting that happen again with how many models I have been working with–and it’s great! I have so much more control over everything when the model is in front of me and I can see everything–but I have been getting that sense of losing myself again.  Guess I’d better do something about that!

The thing about self portrait is that I don’t think for a moment that I am giving you great insights into my soul.  I am explaining that I am a mystery, full of complexity, full of ugly and beauty, a being that goes deeper than even my own understanding.  And so are you. There really is no set point in my art “career”.  It has many points and I don’t see them when I am in the middle of them.  Only hindsight reveals such things to me and I really am just starting out.

I am still feeling around for what I really want to do.  I like a sense of play at times, of just trying something new or different, just as you would a different role on stage.  But I must say that there are a few pieces that deeply resonate with me.  I wish they would get more traction because I think they do have so much merit to them but they are not the crowd pleasers. Those quiet, dark ones–they are the direction I really want to go because there are things you need to get out of you.  You can smash things, go scream in the woods, or you can express it in art form.  It doesn’t have to be wretchedly ugly but it does need to be true.  I will say that it also was hard to allow myself to put ballet on a even plane as photography instead of always elevated high above everything else.

Ballet has been such an idol in my life and I felt tremendous guilt for my dalliances in other art forms so photography has been a form of sanity and balance for me, too.  Instead of pulling me away from my biggest love (ballet), it has actually expanded my ideas of dance and dance has certainly been entirely beneficial for my photography work.They both readily inform the other in the most wonderful of ways.


What part of your art process captivates and emotionally charges you?

I can tell you that so much of my work comes from a deep root of rejection. Either I am defying it or I am appealing to it, I think.  I think so many artists believe that you can only work from those dark places, but I do not think so. There is more to life than crying and doom.  The whole yin/yang of it is worth celebrating.

However, creating art when all is right with the world is just creating something.  It’s those dark times that I create, that craven child in me dug up in her little grave and a fresh wailing wound.  She demands to be heard and dealt with.  I don’t let her throw tantrums in my art and fling dirt.  I try to find that throbbing thing that is the wound and I let a few little drops out.  And a few more drops out.  And another work with a few more drops. And she heals a little more.

The funny thing is, I am making these dark images out of rejection and then, in making them, they receive a lot of rejection which sometimes picks at the rejection wound a little more. But I am getting better at standing by my work.  I am a Christian so there is no shortage of people who want me to put a big ol’ cork in it, put my hands in my lap like a good girl and sit still.  I have long, long learned that God isn’t like that.  God isn’t about controlling me but people surely are. I am so grateful to have an artistic community that reads deeper than the surface.

What would your ideal studio look like?

My ideal studio would be AWESOME.  It would be downtown in a warehouse with huge floor to ceiling windows with arches and panes, brick walls, a living area (and yes, I’d LIVE there), and then the rest full of all kinds of moveable objects–doors, windows, furniture, backdrops that I can create whatever I like whenever I like.  Oh, so very La Vie Boheme!


How do you divide your time between your creative art and social media for marketing / PR or what lessons have you learned to make this process make sense and run day to day smoothly?

As for marketing and promotion, I am terrible at it. I teach ballet in the late afternoons, early evenings, and have rehearsals on weekends so I have to find time to make shoots happen, and then I spend about 4 hours a day on just the promotion and upkeep of all the sites where my work is displayed and sold.  It’s a lot of work and I feel pretty overwhelmed by it.  I often wonder if I should narrow it down and work harder in those places but it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference when I do.  I am terrible at self-promotion!

I have to say that I am currently working at a ballet studio that I am happy to be working in and am going on my fourth year there so all art work revolves around that job.  I  find it hard to create when getting ready to go to the studio sits over my head and I need to maintain class plans or some choreographic details, but there is also an ebb and flow to the work. Sometimes I am so busy that I just cannot even sit down. Sometimes the work load is pretty light.  My maintenance of the promotional business waxes and wanes with that availability.  It is a challenge, for sure!


Do you like to stay fairly true to an initial idea / story board sketch / art vision? Or do you like for your art to change as you go along the process, sometimes resulting in a finished piece that is dramatically different from what you first envisioned ?

If there is one thing I have learned as a choreographer, it’s this: what is possible in your head mostly will not be possible in reality.  But one thing I have learned as an artist is what is impossible to transmit a nuance and feeling to a dancer, you have more control over when it is you, yourself. Choreography really wears me out.  4 minutes of choreography can wring me out for an entire day.  The transmission of that information is what is so entirely daunting.  The more emotional detail, the harder it is.

Photography is quieter and I can feel around in the dark for a nuance I am reaching for.  I don’t even have to have it right then and there. Whatever I was looking for in the shoot usually culminates in post editing.  I have made story boards but they never, ever look even in the neighborhood of what I see.  As for visions, they are quite big and my bank account doth protest. So, yes, often it is not what I wanted, initially.  But then there are these things called “happy accidents”!  I have learned to embrace them and as I get older and realize that life just is–I find a lot of delight in happy accidents.

Most of my ideas fall flat or at least short.  But I have learned that you can actually fall upon something so much better. Every company I have had that has been exclusively mine, sole director, it has been like the equivalent of a garage band.  At first, I was embarrassed by it and felt I always had something to prove–until I discovered that the garage band thing WORKS for me.  I kind of feel the same about my photography work.

While I do like the idea of posh sets and all kinds of assistants to run and do my bidding so I don’t wear myself out before I even get to shooting, the reality of it being just me and this old chair I had, and all these less than ideal costumes, props, etc. I do work better as a garage band.  The less hands in the pot, the more control you have.  The less people you have to please, the more you can do what makes you happy. And then there is so much margin of “failure”!  I do not disdain these “failures” like I used to.  They have made me grow so much and shown me how resourceful I can be.  Very happy accidents.


What draws you in and inspires you in other photographers / artists work?

Brooke Shaden was the very first photographer whose work I saw and my nerves sparked.  I had never even really looked at conceptual photography before.  I had no idea what photo manipulation even was–though I was already doing it with those dance company posters from way back.  A friend had encouraged me to put my work online and I had no idea about that either,  I had been keeping my work under wraps because I had no idea if it was good, bad, ridiculous, or what.  The first site I found was Deviant Art. The first click into photography was like looking through a fashion magazine, which was something I had nothing but disdain for at the time.

But then I came across one of Brooke’s images I loved everything she did–so full of mystery and this otherworldliness that I just loved.  It set me on fire.  And then I started finding all these other photographer/artists and realized that photography wasn’t what I was interested in!  It was THIS!!  To my surprise, Brooke Shaden had been brutally criticized by “legit” photographers and she stood firm on her work.  As she SHOULD!  It’s magnificent!  But then there was Marcela Bolivar, Kylli Sparre, Kirsty Mitchell, Lente Scura, Rusty MacDonald of Dividing Me, Thomas Dodd, I mean this list is endless.

I just couldn’t believe what a huge universe this was.  I love the surrealism of Kylli Sparre and the fact that she was a dancer just inspires me all the more.  I would love to watch her work as I think she is just a pure genius.  I love the dreamscapes of Lente Scura and Dividing Me. Marcela Bolivar creates a beautiful creepiness that is unparalleled. What I think I am most drawn to is the story behind the images, the suggestions, the surrealism, the beauty beyond touch, the beautiful alien, but also the emotions in them.  Not just pretty pictures, they are multi-layered in a deep set psychology of the soul.

When are images better than words?

To me?  Almost always when it comes to human emotion.  Words are great for communicating ideas and articulating intentions.  But I think it is all important–words, music, movement, images.  How can one be better than the other?  The all enhance the other.  It’s a symphony versus one acoustic guitar.

When have you been the most satisfied with your work and what art piece in your gallery feels connected the most to “you”

I really don’t experience satisfaction much.  If I do, it is short lived.  I guess it’s the same syndrome of dancing in front of the mirror and see all that needs to be fixed instead of what is right about it. I’m trying to look more at plusses and less at minuses. I’m just always afraid of losing proper perspective.  It’s hard for me since I’m an all or none sort.  I have yet to make a piece that I feel hits some sort of mark with me.  With my own image, I can do whatever in the world I want with it and I always feel more satisfied with the results of those pieces.

I think one piece that resonates with me lately is “My Place Among the Shadows”.  It’s really a simple portrait but it isn’t. There is a lot of subtext in it for me. I’m actually saying quite a lot about myself.  One woman who saw it, never met her before, stared at it for a long time.  I was watching her look at it.  Then she looked like she was going to cry so I went over to her and she gave me this huge bear hug.  I think she may be the only person who actually “heard” what I was trying to say.  That was so enormously rewarding and I will never forget it.

Do you think working as a photographer and artist is a natural born “gift” vs artistry skills learned through desire, education and simply putting in the work?

Oh, gosh!  Honestly, with teaching ballet, I have to say that I have seen some really enormously gifted dancers who go on to do nothing.  And then I see students who, at face value, don’t have the requisite things to dance but, out of sheer will power, hard work, desire and drive, and so much discipline, go on to be dancers.

But talent or not, it has to be developed.  I use dance because it is something I know so well and have been super saturated with it my whole life and operated in nearly every aspect of it.  I have had students who really didn’t have the physical attributes for ballet but are beautiful dancers with so much soul and beauty in what flows out of them that I’d much rather watch them than the one who has the perfect ballet body and great technique, but no soul.

I also understand the realities of the dance world–that the ballet body is getting the job and the one with all the heart and desire dances with a lesser company or just for “fun.”  But the ballet world, to me, is in great peril because it is not impacting people at a heart level.  It may be appealing to the eyes but the heart leaves the theater cold and the eyes forget what they have seen the moment the dancer leaves the stage. So this is hard to say and this is where art becomes subjective, as well.

It’s wonderful to have all those gifts but they still have to be cultivated but a lot of gifted people are lazy since it comes so easy for them.  I always think it sad to have a prodigy because they are usually just hyper developed at the time and they don’t know how to struggle through plateaus in development or even when they lose the eye of a director for awhile.  When everyone eventually catches up to their ability through hard work and consistency, they just don’t know how to compete because it has always come so easy and they do not know how to persevere.


Have you stepped out of your comfort zone as an artist and either discovered a whole new side to your artistry that you feel in love with OR after much challenging work discovered it was not for you?  

Absolutely. Certainly with how I was explaining about the transition from dance world to art world and how they both so richly inform the other.  As for just in photography, I’ve certainly wanted to walk off quite a few times in sheer frustration, particularly since I am self-taught and get stuck on plateaus of development.  But I keep coming back.  I think they are really just sort of tantrums!  My head cools off and I get back to work.  But as for discovering it isn’t for me?  When you are in dance company, you will have to perform things that you are not all that wild about..because it’s your job. But there is always so much, still, to be gleaned from the experience.  I guess the same could be said about photography.


Do you ever find yourself going back to older photography and art pieces and reworking them either in a different direction and / or with new skills you have developed since you first finished the piece?

Not often.  I have taken so many pictures in the past 5 years that I don’t even really have the time to flip through old things.  I do let photographs sit for awhile.  The ones that compel me the most are the ones that aren’t a “yahooyes!” sort of photo–that there is something in there that needs to be chiseled out.  So I do go back to old pieces for that reason but they are still in raw material form.  I have not reworked any others like that.  Maybe fine tuned it a little more if I thought it was compelling enough to keep in my portfolio.

As for reworking, I’ve had a few shoots that just didn’t go the direction I wanted because there were parts of the situation out of my control and I didn’t get to assert myself and the idea.  I’d actually just like to redo those shoots and make sure that the point gets across. “Assimilation” was one such piece.  I had a very definite idea about what I wanted to do but I was “sharing” the shoot with another photographer and we are night and day style-wise. Live and learn.

What is “success” to you?

Money would be great.  Actually success is having more choices.  I think when you get a name for yourself, doors open and opportunities increase. There are more yes’s than no’s.  I’m not sure how I want to succeed in photography.  It’s a funny world so I am not sure how far I want to wade out into it.  The thing is, I’ve got this whole garage band thing going on and want to just wade out into my own new territory and not worry about what everybody else is doing and even if it is viable to the” people in the know” of photography.

What kind of encouragement or jump start ideas do you give to someone who has been developing their artistry and style but hits a wall / slump?

Ha! I barely know what to tell myself!  But I can give advice that I give my dancers and I’m sure the same can be applied:  keep working hard but then do something else new in your life.  The world is huge and full of so much creativity!  Go outside your field.  Open yourself.  Live  And don’t do it just for your art, do it for you.  You matter.  Feed yourself.  The rest will take care of itself.  Man, that was good!  I think I’ll take that advice, too!

Where do you show your work and where can fans view your portfolio?


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