Why I Draw People Who Live Alone, by Jessica Billey
I draw people who live alone. For the past six years, I’ve been drawing portraits, gathering stories, and exploring this increasingly common way of living. It’s an incredibly rewarding and inspiring project.
I have lived alone off and on throughout my life and never really gave it much thought.
As an artist, living alone is a very natural way to live. The creative path often takes up physical and mental space and lends itself very easily to living alone. I never considered the way I was living might have so much in common with millions of other solo dwellers – until I moved my art studio.
The last year I lived in Albuquerque, NM, I moved my downtown art studio into the casita behind my house. I decided to have a studio warming party and fill the new space with good friends and positive energy. Invitations went out and on the night of the party, about a dozen of my friends came over. We enjoyed a fantastic evening full of conversations and connections and visited late into the night. It wasn’t until after the last person had gone home that I suddenly realized everyone who had been there that night lived alone. Including me.
As an artist, my job is to see and to share what I see.
I was surprised that, amid all our various conversations, the topic of living alone never came up. Not once. How had we missed this one enormous thing we all had in common? I suddenly realized that living alone is so invisible even people who live alone don’t see it. I decided right then to invite my friends back to my studio one by one and draw their portraits while we talked about living alone.
We’re all familiar with the various stereotypes and stigmas about people who live alone. There’s this strange legacy of shunning solo dwellers or assuming there’s something wrong with them. Simply put, these notions exclude people. As a result, living alone and the people who live this way are nearly missing from our shared awareness. I see this as a blind spot in our daily relationships and our larger communities.
Living alone is quite common. There are many reasons people live alone. Some people prefer to have their own space, while others may arrive at this way of living through the loss of a partner or divorce. Single parents might find themselves alone when their children move away. Life changes or long-distance jobs or deployments might require people to live separately for extended amounts of time.
There can be a wonderful freedom in having your own space. Your home is just yours. You can arrange things the way you want. You can enjoy quietness and solitude or listen to music at 2 a.m. You can be creative and explore new hobbies and try new things. You learn a lot about yourself when you live alone, and you get to decide how you want to live. It’s no surprise that more and more people are choosing to live this way.
Living alone does present some unique situations though. You are solely responsible for everything that goes into daily living and maintaining your home. It often costs more to live alone. It can be isolating and lonely at times and present challenges when navigating health issues. It often requires new ways of thinking. You must reach out to friends when you need help.
Currently, nearly 37 million people live alone in the US. That’s roughly 28% of all households.
People often ask me how I find participants for this project. I started by drawing my friends and then I started drawing their friends. The connections have gone on from there. Sometimes people will see this project displayed in a gallery or at an artist talk, and they’ll reach out to me wanting to participate. I’m always looking to include new people from all lifestyles and locations.
I chose paper and pencil for the drawings because it’s simple; it travels well, and it’s familiar. People are comfortable and relaxed around these basic artist tools. I think it’s because everyone knows what it’s like to draw with pencils. I write the stories out with paper and pencil as well and make them anonymous.
When seen together, the stories and portraits create a collective voice. People connect through the drawings and the stories bring the whole thing to life.
Each time I sit down to draw someone, I’m always excited to see where the conversation will go. I usually meet people in their favorite cafe or in their home. I’ve drawn people in their kitchens, outside in flower gardens, city parks, and busy cafes. Drawing sessions usually take two to three hours and I always take a few reference photos in case I need to finish the drawings afterwards.
Before the pandemic, I was keeping the entire process very simple and as analog as possible. I would meet with people in person and draw them while we talked, and then I would go back to my studio, jot down highlights from our conversations, and add any last details to the drawings. When the pandemic landed, my entire process was disrupted, and I had to adapt. I started drawing people online and quickly realized I could draw anyone anywhere. This opened a new realm of possibilities. I started recording entire conversations and drawing sessions with video. Now that I’m meeting people face to face again, I’ve added a portable recorder so I can continue to document in-person conversations.
People who live alone are some of the most interesting people I have ever met. They are also some of the most resilient and courageous people I have ever met. I’m looking forward to traveling and drawing more people and expanding this project in some new ways.
So far, I have produced almost 40 portraits of people from all over the country and have exhibited their drawings and stories in small gallery settings and artist talks. I am always amazed to see how everyone interacts with this project and how powerful it is. It is clear there are some incredible opportunities here. My hope is to inspire new conversations and connections and to encourage new ways of thinking throughout our communities on multiple levels.
Thank you Living Well Alone for giving me the opportunity to share some of this project
Jessica Billey is a US-based artist, printmaker, and musician. Additional drawings and Jessica’s other artwork can be found on her Instagram pages @jessicabilley and @peoplewholivealone. All artwork in this article copyright Jessica Billey.
Cover image: John – People Who Live Alone, by Jessica Billey (2020). Pencil on paper, 18 x 24”