Artist Jessica Billey weighs in on how working during a quarantine has altered her practice. Billey sheds light on how an extremely negative situation has lead to a profound development in her work.
1. How are you holding up?
I’m doing alright. Or at least I am at the time of this writing. My pandemic experience has been a bit overwhelming. I’ve moved house twice and my art studio once. Since March. It’s been extremely stressful and disruptive. Finding a new place to live is tremendously difficult right now. Thankfully, with the help of some incredible hearts, I was able to find and move into a nice little place where I can live and work and finally catch my breath. It’s so good to be setting up a new home and getting back to work on my projects. It also feels a bit strange to be so excited about something in the midst of such an enormous crisis. There’s been a lot of loss already. It’s not an easy time at all. But even through all the sadness and struggle, there are good things happening. I’m trying to really embrace this new life as much as I can and move forward with my art.
2. Has Covid had an effect on your work? If so, in what way?
COVID-19 has had a profound effect on my artwork. For three years, I’ve been working on a long-term project doing portraits of People Who Live Alone. Before the pandemic, I was meeting people face-to-face and doing their portraits while we talked about living alone. I can’t do that now. I was literally just on the verge of doing a big push to gather funds so I could travel and do drawing tours, but the pandemic hit like a giant speed bump and sent my world up into the air. I’ve landed now thankfully, but COVID has completely altered the way I can interface with people. I’m having to retool some big things and quickly shift gears. All of my portrait sessions are now via video chat, which is alright actually. I can meet with people anywhere, anytime, all around the planet now. I was planning to keep this project as analog as possible, meeting with people in person, because there’s something very real and good about sharing stories with people in the same space. Memories get reinforced when they are shared in person. They take on more life and create a connected space, and that’s something we seem to be drifting away from. The pandemic has really amplified the simple importance of these connections.
When the lockdown started, I was suddenly inundated with a flood of emails and messages and texts from people wanting to talk about living alone, wanting to have their portrait drawn, and asking for advice on how to live alone with this new level of isolation. I knew right from the start this project was big, but I had no idea it would suddenly be so relevant and needed. It’s humbling. This project has always required a kind of gentle reverence, and now it has stepped full-on into a realm of urgency. And I completely understand. I’ve lived alone many times in the past and I’m living alone now. I’m essentially living my project.
When it comes to the drawing sessions, I was initially worried that the video chat conversations would feel awkward or hesitant. But it’s turned out to be the opposite. People are eager to talk about living alone right now, and they feel especially comfortable talking from their own homes. There is a bit of disconnect since I’m still sitting in my own home. Pre-COVID drawings were done in coffee shops or people’s homes, and those surroundings always influenced the conversations and informed the drawings as well. The virtual interface works fine though. I was concerned at first that the drawings would lose some of those wonderful, subtle details, but that really hasn’t been a problem. And there are new elements now: glimpses into living rooms and kitchens, computer screens reflected in eyeglasses, cats and dogs jumping up to say hello… The drawings have evolved to fit these times.
COVID also affected my other artwork and added some very real struggles. Like many artists, I fell through the cracks of the CARES Act, so I’ve been scrambling to find emergency grants and funding wherever I can. I was supposed to have some woodcut prints in a few shows earlier this year, but those shows got postponed and one exhibit might even be canceled. There are hybrid plans for part Zoom, part in-person showings, and everything is still evolving. As an interesting side note, I just ordered some printmaking supplies and learned that relief printing has suddenly become incredibly popular because of the pandemic. It’s the only form of printmaking people can really do without a press or a lot of equipment.
3. Is there anything you’ve added to your practice that you’d like to keep after this is over?
Yes! I know I will continue doing some of the portraits through video chat. It’s just incredibly convenient and gives me the chance to connect with a much wider audience, all around the planet. Plus, by the time we are somehow past these COVID days, I’ll have acquired some new computer skills and equipment, and I’m sure I will continue to use these tools as I go forward.
Another thing I’ve added during this pandemic is daily Tai Chi practice and study. I’ve been doing Tai Chi for over 20 years and I teach as well. I’ve gone through phases in the past where I’ve practiced a lot and then not as much. During this pandemic though, stepping into that space is like a treasure. It’s become a cherished and important part of my daily routine. It keeps me centered and grounded and in shape, both mentally and physically.
4. Of all the artists you follow, who’s handling this particularly well?
I don’t know if anyone is really handling this pandemic well. Most people seem to be going through cycles of coping and then falling apart. I have to say, I think artists and other creative souls might be hit especially hard through this pandemic. We’re an especially sensitive lot and we’ve invested a lot of time and energy in honing that particular skill. But we also have some incredible strength and resilience, and that’s where we shine. There are some artists who are doing some really impressive things right now. Earlier in the pandemic, I spoke with San Diego collage artist Melody Moulton and did her portrait for my project. In addition to her own work, she’s using this pandemic time to open a new gallery. How cool and bold is that? I’m very excited for her and I look forward to visiting Trash Lamb Gallery someday in person.
5. Is there any particular genre of music or artist you’ve been listening to during the crisis and why?
I’ve returned to some old favorites. I’ve been listening to a lot of Thelonious Monk and this record of Ronald Isley and Burt Bacharach. There’s something about these melodies that helps fill in the spaces these days. Thor and Friends is on high rotation too. I used to listen to a lot of vibraphone music when I was little, hanging out in my grandparent’s violin repair shop. I think a lot of the music I’m listening to right now has some element of nostalgia to it. It’s like musical comfort food.
Jessica Billey is an artist and musician living in Corvallis, Oregon. Her current work features People Who Live Alone and explores the unique experience of solo living through portrait drawing and storytelling. This evolving, long-term project, started in August 2017, seeks to shatter stereotypes, rearrange the dialogue, and inspire and help facilitate lasting resources for people who live alone. Currently, over 35 million people in the U.S., including more than 60% of millennials, live alone. This project provides an immediate and accessible platform for people to be seen and heard.
To learn more or become a supporting patron, please go to the GoFundme.
Additional artwork includes relief printmaking with a current focus on highly detailed macro botanical woodcut prints. Exhibits include Woodblocks, a two-person exhibition (with Tim Hartsock) at the Corrine Woodman Gallery of The Arts Center in Corvallis, OR, and BIG INK II at the Bend Art Center in Bend, OR, featuring large-scale woodblocks printed at Whiteaker Printmakers in Eugene, OR. Previous exhibits have included work and performances at SITE Santa Fe in New Mexico, Brooklyn Fire Proof Gallery in New York, Postcommodity’s Spirit Abuse Gallery in Albuquerque, NM, and An Evening Redness in the West, a group exhibit with art collective Death Convention Singers at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts in Santa Fe, NM.
Jessica is also a Sifu of Yang Style Tai Chi Ch’uan and a musician (violin and more) with decades of stage and studio experience both nationally and internationally. Groups she has toured and performed with include Paramount Styles, Smog, Nicolai Dunger, Death Convention Singers, Boxhead Ensemble, the Huntress String Quartet, and the Grave of Nobody’s Darling. She currently performs under the moniker Venus Rings.
If you would like to learn more about People Who Live Alone or help fund this project, please go to to the GoFundMe. If you are interested in participating in this portrait project, contact Jessica through the Gofundme page or her Instagram or Facebook pages.