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Isabella Rhodes: Student Spotlight

Entering the bedroom of Bennington junior Isabella Rhodes, I transcend into another world, one brimming with creativity and ingenuity. If home is where the heart is, Bella’s heart smells of coffee and linen: an aorta lined with design sketches and theatre tickets, pulmonary valves illuminated by the warm twinkle of fairy lights and a cool autumn glow bleeding through the window. As if reading my thoughts, she likens the place to a “little studio,” noting the scissors and fabric strewn across the rug at the base of her mannequin.

“It’s my first space that feels genuinely lived-in.”

After exploring the room a short while longer, we assume the traditional journalistic position: my subject criss-cross-applesauce against the bed, and me, swallowed by a fluffy white beanbag chair.

“I feel like if you ask any Bennington art student to just talk about themselves, they’ll be really down,” she jokes as we open the interview. Rhodes herself studies mostly photography and fashion, but is currently getting into playwriting for her senior work.

She begins by flipping through the photos she has stored on her laptop.

“I really should’ve organized this before you came over.”

As she browses, I read the names of the dozens of folders on the desktop; aubrey; home; nystrangers.

“This [‘Headlights, 2019’] is a project I was working on at the beginning of my sophomore year. I do a lot about trauma and sexuality. The body is kind of something I’ve weaved in and out of thematically throughout my time at Bennington. I mean, this image was important because it was the first time — or maybe not the first time — but this was when I was figuring out that I wanted to shoot people nude, or have bodies incorporated into the work.”

Rhodes’s influences include the work of artists Talia Chetrit, Dora Maar, and Cindy Sherman. Chetrit in particular inspires an interest in “how we find women in compromising positions, used as props, sexy — or at least conceptually interesting — across all art forms. I’m obsessed with the idea of hyper-stylized images appearing raw and intimate and personal, or vice versa when intimate moments maybe don’t translate that way on film.”

To demonstrate her interest in this dichotomy, Bella shows me two photo sets. The first consists of studio images shot with gels; she explains that it doesn’t carry much real weight to her, other than being a fun photoshoot with a friend. The second set of photos, on the other hand, evoke potent feelings.

“I’ve documented some really intense moments in my relationship. For example, two summers ago, my partner and I broke up at the train station. I thought I was never going to see him again —  he was going to London — so I asked if I could take a photo of him. Then I immediately moved my camera and I saw that there was a couple kissing on a bus and we just looked at them together, sobbing. She’s looking right at me — that was intense.”

As she describes the images, she lets out a bittersweet laugh, eyes welling up with tears. Her gaze turns to the German film camera that rests on the floor between us. She hands it to me and allows me to feel its weight: a 1950s Agfa Silette Prontor SVS, 35 mm format, manual focus.

She goes on to describe her goal of bringing together the precious and the functional. Growing up, Rhodes’s father started a stock footage company. Birthdays, holidays, vacations — the personal moments of childhood were sold for advertisements and commercials. “So, I’m just really interested in that. And also just… clothes and stuff.”

As a first-year, Bella already had an interest in photography, but since studying at Bennington, her creative endeavours have expanded. “I definitely didn’t think I’d end up doing fashion. I’ve come to realize that I can use Bennington classes to support my work, but most of what I’m going to do that I really like is gonna come from outside of classes. They all kind of come in and out of each other — photography, film, video, fashion, garment construction… and they can all kind of come together in one project.”

For example, Rhodes is currently preparing to auteur a play for next spring, provisionally titled “Trigger Warning,” for which she’s writing, costume-designing, directing, and potentially filming. 

She describes the play as a “sexual assault nightmare. That’s sort of how I process reality, is constructing my own narratives around it or stylizing it in some way.”

“The word construction has come up a lot in my plan, and I think that feels like an important distinction over creation. I don’t do sculpture here, but there’s something about physically or spatially constructing things. I worked for a prop stylist for Field Work Term, a very literal constructing-the-image job… Pastiching the materials around you and making sense of them in new arrangements, versus creating something out of thin air.”

As I start to ask Rhodes about her post-Bennington plans, she interrupts me with a painful shriek. “No, it’s fine, I mean right now I’m just filling out my portfolio in these different disciplines. I think it could probably go in a lot of different directions. I’ll probably go to grad school for fashion, or some kind of film.”

Feeling inspired as we wrap up our interview, I ask Bella if I can photograph her in her natural habitat.

“Just for you, right?”

“Maybe not. Depends how it turns out.”

She hesitates for a moment, then lights up and springs into action. In typical photographer form, Rhodes frantically scans her room for props, settling on the knitting supplies and cameras that had been lying on the floor and completing the look with a pair of dark, round sunglasses from her bedside table. Playfully, she constructs her image, the essence of which I capture on my dirty iPhone 8 camera:

Next time, I think I’ll leave the photography to Miss Rhodes.

Written by: Delaney Shultz

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