J. Harrison Ghee has had one hell of a year.
Since opening Some Like It Hot on Broadway in December 2022, Ghee has become the toast of New York, winning the Outer Critics Circle, the Drama Desk, and the Tony Award for their leading performance as Jerry and Daphne in the musical. While they have weathered the whirlwind with characteristic grace, moments of gentle introspection have been hard to come by, both in the lead up and the aftermath of Tony Sunday.
When artist Alexa Meade, a painter who specializes in three-dimension portraiture, reached out to Ghee, it was a no brainer. Meade is one of the most popular living canvas painters working today, with her inventive design for Ariana Grande's music video "God is a Woman" lauded as one of the most striking music videos of the 20th century. Her work on the video kickstarted an aesthetic trend that continues to reverberate throughout the beauty industry. Less than a month after award season, Ghee came to Meade's immersive Wonderland Dreams installation in New York to become Meade's living canvas.
"When this collaboration was brought to me, I was so excited," Ghee details. "I love moments for artists to come together and have freedom to do what they do. To trust Alexa in her space was truly an honor. I love giving in to an artist and letting them do what they do."
What Meade does is deceptively complex. While Meade regularly uses the human body as her canvas, she is hardly a traditional body painter. "Body painting has scintillating connotations, like painting a nude body to look like a zebra, or painting a bikini on a Sports Illustrated model," Meade explains. "My work is really about portraiture. It's not about transforming someone into something completely different. It's about bringing out a part of themselves to be more vibrant, and to display insides on the outside."
Nestled inside the Alice in Wonderland–inspired Wonderland Dreams installation, Meade and Ghee immortalized this moment in Ghee's life through a series of portraits. The experience was remarkably tranquil for Ghee.
"It reminded me of getting in drag. I love the feeling of a brush on my skin, and to feel that all over was even more serene and peaceful and meditative. It was unexplored expression, but also a moment of meditation and peace and surrender," Ghee reflects, visibly relaxing their posture as they retreat into the memory. "People were watching it happen, and it was beautiful to just sit and be the canvas, and to allow this creativity to just be happening around me. Seeing it inspire little kids, and see how imaginative they were being watching it happen... they didn't know I'm a Tony Award winner, this is just the artist at work in her space, and it was just such a beautiful moment of peace."
With peace so difficult to come by at this point in their life, Ghee's tranquility became the cornerstone of their collaboration. "It gave me not only a moment to just sit and be, but to allow creativity to happen to me." While the pair had an audience during the painting session, there was a lack of artifice to the experience that allowed Ghee to simply be as the canvas, rather than requiring them to perform in any capacity.
Meade recognized the delicacy of the dynamic handily. "There's a theatrical quality to it. Before everyone, J. is being transformed, but the audience is more casual. They're people who are there to see the art exhibit, and then they're seeing someone being turned into living artwork. People weren't putting us under a microscope, they weren't looking to see if there were flaws, they just stumbled upon something magical."
"I try to encourage people, in my life and in my ministry and in my work, to give in and and free themselves," Ghee states. "This is definitely one of those mediums where you have to give in. You can't go in reluctantly, and trying to nitpick and be like, 'What are you doing? And why are you putting that there?' If you give into this moment, the beauty that comes from it, the transformation, the release, the meditation of it all, can be so healing in many ways, if you let it be. It is an opportunity to really surrender, which is not something easy for a lot of people to do. It is an opportunity to really free yourself, from the canvas point of view."
Meade agrees, echoing Ghee. "There's something about the portraits' serenity, it's beautiful. I paint the person. They shine through, and because I'm not painting on a flat canvas, it's a real human life that you see coming through, whether it's in the eyes, or the micro facial expressions, or the posture of the body. In the case of J., it just feels like we captured them shining through. It couldn't have been a portrait of anyone else, no matter how I painted, because at the end of the day, it's about J."
Ghee is one of many live canvases that have and will come through Wonderland Dreams, a wholly hand-painted exhibit in midtown that is open to the public through the beginning of September. Held in a former Best Buy, Meade relished the opportunity to create an immersive world in which her audience could lose themselves. The similarity to Ghee's work as a theatrical storyteller is not lost on either of them. "I really dream of someday doing a larger collaboration with Broadway," Meade admits. "I can only imagine how gorgeous it would be to have an entire Broadway show that was painted, not just the set pieces, but the actors also performing as living paintings."
When pondering the idea, Ghee has a stroke of genius. "Imagine a production of Sunday in the Park with George with everybody painted by her! Oh, it would be incredible. And I'll play Dot, of course."
To see more, flip through the gallery below.