by DAKOTA KIM | @dakotakim1
Bridget Rhee is a New York City-based multidisciplinary visual artist, burlesque performer and art curator. She creates molded plastic sculptures, playful cartoon-drawing T-shirt designs and wildly colorful costumed photography. Using her body as a self-portrait template, the 26-year-old Rhee has combined 3D design, graphics, drawing, photography, costuming and dance to create colorful, poppy images exhibited at such places as The Art Directors Club of New York, the Roy Venters gallery in Honolulu and the Hilton Las Vegas. Rhee’s 3D designs have been published in the New York Daily News, New York Times and the art book Monumental, while her drawings have been featured in AllState insurance and Comcast videos.
From an incandescent Frida Kahlo to a playful fortune cookie act, Rhee’s burlesque performances at the Slipper Room, This ‘N’ That, Nurse Bettie and The McKittrick Hotel, all of which are in New York City, mirror themes in her pop art and establish Rhee as a modern-day artistic emblem.
Rhee, who also regularly curates pop art shows at TT-Underground Gallery in the East Village, discussed her creative life, work inspirations and Korean heritage with charactermedia.com from a pink neo-Victorian sofa in her quirky East Village apartment, with brief interruptions by her meowing Maine Coon Spock. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get your start in drawing?
I drew a lot growing up. I’m an only child so I was very much the source of my own entertainment. My parents told me I would mess up so many couches and walls by drawing [on them]. My high school did not have an art program, so a lot of art I did [on my own]. My parents sent me to weekend classes to try and nurture my interests. I actually went to [New York City’s] School of Visual Arts (SVA) originally for photography, but once I got to New York, I switched out of photography my first year because I realized how much I really liked design. I graduated from SVA with a degree in graphic design and 3D design.
Can you explain what 3D design is?
When people hear “3D design,” they automatically think I do computer work or computer-generated imagery (CGI), but no, 3D design means, in the most traditional sense, that I build stuff. I spent most of my college years in a woodshop, building things by hand. It’s a lot of fun to just go through that process. I’ve learned to rewire electrical things, or fix a broken door—stuff that I probably would not otherwise know how to do myself.
How does burlesque fit into your interest in drawing, 3D design and curation?
Burlesque is a creative outlet. It’s like a canvas, where all the skills I learn from drawing and 3D, I can incorporate into my acts.
How did you get into burlesque?
I had a roommate at the time, and his boyfriend was a drag queen. Every now and then, he would take me to these shows and there would be burlesque in them. I loved how funny everything was, and sexy and just super creative. Those are three things I love—fun, sex and creativity. I especially loved how empowered those women looked, and I wanted to do that. I had these ideas [for acts]: Marilyn Monroe, Frida Kahlo…
What kinds of gallery shows have you curated?
I’m into group shows, and seeing other people’s work. I did a t-shirt graphic show. The only theme was black and white, a single graphic on a white shirt, so everyone had to follow that. To see that, the gallery in black and white, it’s so simple and basic, but everyone’s vision and style is completely different.
You have a great sense for kitsch, pop art and graphic art. It’s interesting and likeable in a way that sometimes the New York art world is not. What’s your inspiration for such fun art?
I like being happy. (Laughs).
Was it difficult having such an artistic temperament growing up in the Korean community?
I was a really bad student and [my parents] realized that art was the only thing I was good at, so they let me go to art school. I’m second-generation Korean American. My parents aren’t very traditional–they’re way more free-spirited than these other stories I hear from Korean friends whose parents make them go to medical school and what not.
It sounds like they were supportive.
I think part of the reason my parents were so supportive was because of their own life experiences. My dad, even though he was born in Korea, spent his childhood growing up in Vietnam because of the [Vietnam] war. My grandfather was a war general at the time, and my dad was a kid growing up and saw all of this stuff that kids – well, human beings – should not see, and I think that affected him a lot in terms of how he wanted to raise his own child. When I came along, he wanted me to have a childhood and be happy, because he didn’t have that growing up.
My mom works for hospice so she works with people on their deathbeds, reflecting on their lives, talking about what they regret, what they wish they did, what they wish they didn’t do. The most common thing is that they wish they did what made them happy and that their families were accepting of their choices. I think that affected my mom’s mentality raising me. I probably had an easier time in terms of not having the “traditional” Korean American upbringing.
Being an artist in New York can’t be easy. What inspirations keep you going when you want to quit?
I’m a believer in general that in life, whatever you admire in somebody, you have in yourself as well. Anything you want to be in life, you could totally be it. I actually have this file on my desktop called “Inspiration People.” There are maybe 10 people, not all visual artists, but in all of them, there’s something I like about them. Mr. Rogers – he wasn’t a visual artist, but his sweetness and kindness and gentleness influence the feminine things I put into my own style, like my pink couch and cherry teapot. I have John Waters because he’s weird as shit. It tells me it’s okay to be weird and have eccentric taste. Same with Betsy Johnson. I love how strong Beyoncé is, because it encourages me to be unapologetic in whatever your art is. Bettie Page: how she stood out a lot during her time period. Tina Fey: just the fact that it’s empowering to see a woman on a stage of her own choosing. That influences how I feel about art.
It’s one thing to have the idea and another to execute it.
The people who actually accomplish things, the one thing they have in common, they just did it. It’s so easy to stop. Everything is a calculated risk, but when you start doubting yourself because you start to see competition, it’s like standing on top of a really high point and looking down – you get dizzy. No one on their deathbed ever wishes they spent more time in the office! I don’t want to be that person thinking, “Wow, I spent my life holding back on a lot of things because I was scared of something I made up in my own head.”
On that note, what are some future projects you’d like to do?
Definitely more burlesque. One of my goals within the next year or so is to build a giant martini glass. It’s so crazy expensive to rent one, and I want to own one, and I have the skills to build one. I really want to do a shrimp cocktail act. And with art, I’d like to do something with textiles. I don’t know what, but I want to try something I haven’t done before.
What is your favorite Korean dish?
Naengmyun—mul naengmyun. It’s so refreshing!
Correction: Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article stated that Rhee’s father spent his childhood in Vietnam due to the Korean War. Rhee’s father spent his childhood in Vietnam due to the Vietnam War, as his father was stationed there as a general in the Korean Army. KoreAm regrets the error.