People Who Live Alone : Portrait Project

People Who Live Alone is a portrait project by artist Jessica Billey that focuses on the unique experience of living alone.

An interesting thing is happening. More and more people are living alone. People of all ages, incomes, abilities, and lifestyles are choosing to live alone. This trend is on the rise and growing fast. Something is shifting. The way people live is changing. We need to start paying attention!

When you live alone, the way you live becomes invisible. And when things become invisible, it is very easy to ignore them. Out of sight, out of mind. This is creating an enormous blind spot in our communities. A growing number of people are being overlooked.

I draw people who live alone. I am documenting this very personal way of living by talking with people who live alone and doing their portraits.

I am turning on a spotlight and dialing up the conversation. I want this project to make living alone more visible and more familiar. I want people to see that living alone is a very normal way of living. I want this project to help discover areas of need and encourage new solutions. My hope is to inspire new ideas and resources that will help make this way of living easier and more accessible. I want this project to encourage people to connect and think in new ways.

I want this project to become a lasting resource for people who live alone.

44374128_1577579573137805_r.jpegLiving alone is very normal and increasingly popular.

A recent PEW Research poll found that 61% of millennials live alone. During the last US Census, nearly 30% of small town residences had just one person living there. In large cities, people were living alone in over half of the residences. These numbers have continued to grow, and this trend shows no signs of slowing down. 

People rarely talk about living alone. Even people who live alone rarely talk about it.

Living alone can be very satisfying and freeing. People enjoy having their own space. Sometimes people choose to live alone and sometimes people end up living alone because of a sudden loss or life change. Sometimes people find themselves living alone when a partner or spouse is traveling for work, or when their kids grow up and move away. Many people find they prefer living alone.

Living alone can also require extra effort and work. It can come with unique hurdles and challenges that are often overlooked by surrounding communities, friends, and families. It can create personal challenges with loneliness or accessibility. There are also many negative stigmas and stereotypes about living alone. People often assume that living alone is unhealthy or unsafe or that there must be something wrong with people who live alone. It's often assumed that people who live alone want to be left alone or that they're fine by themselves.

The fact is, living alone is completely normal.

When you combine all of these things, it becomes clear. We need to direct some real attention to this way of living. We need to shake up the old stereotypes and create a new understanding. We need to find reliable and meaningful ways to connect with people who live alone. We need to invest in new ideas and solutions to help make living alone easier and more accessible.

We need to see people who live alone as valuable and resourceful members of our communities.

44374128_1577579621231337_r.jpegThis project starts with people.
I meet with participants in casual settings like coffee shops or their homes and we talk about the adventures and challenges of living alone. Each person shares their individual stories while I draw. We talk about all sorts of things--gardening, pets, families, food, school, race cars, travel adventures, health adventures, martial arts, visual arts, music, and so much more. I've been doing this project for over two years, and each person I meet is so interesting and incredible. I am always excited to draw more people and hear their stories.

44374128_1577579649325344_r.jpegEach drawing session takes about 2-3 hours. 
At the end of each visit, I take a few reference photos for later. Sometimes the drawings are finished right there, sometimes I finish them in my studio. It all depends on how lively the conversations are and how fast I draw! After meeting with each person, I jot down a few notes from our conversations. I want to remember each person's story and write down the things they find especially exciting or challenging about living alone. I am finding that even across different ages, incomes, and lifestyles, everyone who lives alone shares some things in common.

This project is so much more than an art project.

44374128_1577579683317275_r.jpegSo far I've done nearly 30 portraits. 
I started this project in August 2017 while living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Since then, I've drawn people ranging in age from 23 to 84, from Albuquerque; Seattle, WA; Portland, Corvallis, McMinnville, and Eugene, OR; Lafayette and West Lafayette, IN; and San Francisco, CA.

For over two years I have been funding this endeavor on my own and with the support of several friends and volunteers and with the help of a few wonderful patrons. When it comes to participating in this project, sitting for a portrait is completely voluntary. I do not charge money or pay money for people to participate. I want participation in this project to be accessible to all.

I maintain a working art studio with a private gallery in Oregon. I've hosted over a dozen art walk events and have talked about this project with hundreds of people during open studio nights, private viewings, artist talks, and presentations. I've logged countless hours reading and researching about this topic, and have documented several of the portrait sessions on audio and video.

In the gallery at my studio, I am able to show the portraits and anonymous stories in multiple configurations and observe which exhibit layouts work best for the visiting audience. I've been able to find a simple and effective way of displaying this project in a way that immediately connects with people.

I have recently started including a questionnaire for studio visitors to fill out--one for people who live alone, and one for people who do not live alone. This is helping me gain even more insight into areas of need and highlighting places where connections can be improved. 

This is an exciting and evolving project.

44374128_1577579744555587_r.jpegWhere this project is headed....
I plan to continue drawing portraits and gathering stories, and I would like to expand this project and make it bigger and more accessible to a wider audience.

Drawing Tours. I want to travel to other parts of the country and meet people who live alone in other cities and towns and rural areas. I want to gather a wide variety of stories and continue to find those areas of shared, common experiences. This will involve booking portrait participants and coordinating travel and hotels, along with assembling and transporting drawing materials and needed art supplies.

Exhibits. It is always exciting when people recognize their neighbors or friends on the walls in my studio. It is also especially exciting for portrait participants to be right there during the exhibit! They become the stars of the show. When I do drawing tours, I want to coordinate exhibits in each area that features local people. I also want to participate in larger exhibits around the country and share this project on a bigger scale. I have seen how powerful it is and how relevant it is in our world right now. I know it has the ability to inspire new ways of thinking and new ways of connecting.

Art Prints. I want to give each participant a nice, high quality print of their portrait. I am also interested in making limited edition prints of each drawing, for purchase and for multiple traveling exhibits.

Maintaining Connections. I want to stay in touch with each participant, and continue this conversation about living alone. I want to give each person the opportunity to share their own comments and quotes, if they want, for future exhibits and other media. I would like to offer a way for participants to connect with each other and expand on this conversation. 

Podcast. The conversations I have with people during the portrait sessions are always fascinating and interesting on so many levels. Normally I do not record conversations while drawing. I want to make sure everyone is comfortable and able to relax and talk freely. Sometimes I find participants who are fine with being recorded while we talk, and I have already documented several of these sessions on audio and one on video. I would like to do a podcast that features a series of conversations and portrait sessions. I have already found a sound engineer who is excited to work on this part of the project with me.

Website. At the moment, I find portrait participants by word of mouth. I would like to have a website where I can easily connect with people around the country who are interested in participating. A website will also provide a gallery page with some of the portraits, access to some of the anonymous stories, information on upcoming drawing tours, exhibits, podcasts, and other news about the project.

Crew. This is a big project, and I am only one person. In order to make all of these things happen and work smoothly and successfully, I will need to hire a small crew of people to help me when needed. I've already found several people who are excited to work on this project, and will need a few more to make it really happen. I need people to fill the roles of assistant, booking agent, manager, web designer, social media and web support, a driver for longer drawing tours, a sound engineer and videographer to help document the conversations and drawings, and more as needed.

Artist Talks. I have logged hundreds of hours of one-on-one conversations about this topic, and have done various artist talks on this project. I would like to continue bringing this conversation to new audiences along with the drawing tours and exhibits.

Art Book. Many people want an art book of the portraits and stories, and I agree! It is already such an interesting and engaging subject, and having it in a book form that people can take home will simply make it even more accessible and more personal. I intend to do a few drawing tours and gather more portraits and stories before assembling an art book.

Book. This project inspires a lot of thinking and writing, and I have recently realized I already have the outline and chapters of a book about living alone. I know this particular aspect of the project will evolve even more and come together further down the road, but it is already brewing and being worked on.

Studio and Artist Support. This project is a full time job! It requires a tremendous amount of time and energy. For over two years, I have been funding it on my own and with the help of several wonderful patrons. In order to take this project to the next level and continue working on it, I need financial help. This will help cover art and drawing supplies, studio rent and insurance, and basic living expenses. 

Transportation. I need reliable transportation. Currently I have an older model vehicle that is not always up to the task of road trips. I've explored a variety of travel methods and have sorted out ball-park estimates for day trips, regional drawing tours, and longer extended drawing tours across the country that involve driving, taking the train, and flying to various destinations. Having a reliable vehicle would provide the most affordable and efficient transportation for the majority of these travels.

All of these things will require more than I am asking for here.

It is my hope to use this money to get these specific projects started, and to keep my studio funded and myself housed and fed. I intend to also seek additional funding through potential grants, foundations, and other means.

Ultimately, the more help I receive, the bigger and better this project will become.

44374128_15775798331013_r.jpegThis project has an immediate and powerful ability to engage people.

During the art walks and open houses at my studio, I've seen people get excited and shocked by this project. I've seen people become overwhelmed to the point of tears. I've seen people get angry and defensive. I've seen people become so emotional, they need to sit down. I've seen enormous and very real reactions to this project.

People are often very quiet or speechless when they first see the drawings and read the stories. There's a genuine engagement with this subject because it is very personal and very real. I have seen people come in to my studio and suddenly leave in tears, only to come back later, dragging friends with them to look at the drawings and read the stories together.

I am constantly amazed and humbled by the simple power of this project. This particular topic is so overlooked, that it is nearly shocking to see. It is so plain and straightforward and common, that it often takes people by surprise.

I am excited to continue this project and I am truly grateful for your generosity. So many people have told me over the past two years how important this project is, and many people have thanked me over and over for doing this. It is clear that there is a large voice here that needs to be heard. 

Thank you for your help.

44374128_15775798859682_r.jpegA bit about me...
I am a longtime artist and musician originally from Elkhart, Indiana (b. 1969). I grew up around a creative family full of artists, musicians, and storytellers. I studied art at the University of Evansville and Purdue University with a focus on painting and printmaking. I play violin and guitar and sing, and have traveled, performed, and recorded with various musical groups, both nationally and internationally. 

I've spent most of my adult life in Indiana, Chicago, and Albuquerque, and currently reside in the beautiful state of Oregon. I am also a Sifu of Yang Style Tai Chi, with over 21 years of martial arts practice. 

This portrait project is something I am very excited about. I have a strong tendency to work on long term projects, and many of my art projects consist of long creative series that span many years.

I am especially excited and honored to have a project with a purpose.

44374128_1577579938993354_r.jpegHow this project started.

In August 2017, I was living in Albuquerque, NM. I had just moved my art studio to a small building behind my house, and decided to have a party to celebrate my new work space. It was a beautiful evening, and about a dozen friends showed up. We all enjoyed a wonderful night full of laughter and fantastic conversations. We laughed about silly pet stories, shared moments of celebration and loss, and talked about science and art and movies and music. We talked for hours about all sorts of things, big and small. It was a grand evening with good people, and it warmed up my new studio space with just the right laughter and goodness.

At the end of the night when my friends had gone home, I suddenly realized everyone who was there lived alone. I was also living alone. How did we all miss this detail?! We had talked about so many things, yet we failed to notice we all had this one big thing in common. 

I had invited a lot of people. Married couples, parents with kids, single friends... Yet the only ones who showed up were people who lived alone. It suddenly made me wonder. Why did that happen? Why were people who lived alone the only ones there that night?

I was working on portraits during that time, and while I was thinking about my friends who were at my studio party, I suddenly thought how great it would be to do their portraits. What a fantastic way to spend more time with my friends and do some art at the same time! We could continue some of our great conversations... and maybe talk about living alone.

The more I thought about this idea, the more I started to think about all of the other people I know who also live alone. There are family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, acquaintances, and on and on. The more I thought about it, the longer that list got. I suddenly realized I know a lot of people who live alone. How had I missed this? That's when it hit me...

I suddenly realized that living alone can be so invisible, even people who live alone don't see it!

In a flash, this simple portrait idea became a massive project. I started to think of all the things that are unique to living alone. I started to consider all of the challenges and struggles, moments of joy and peace, and that incredible sense of self-confidence that comes with living alone. I started to think about all the ways this project could help other people see and understand this way of living. I started to think of all the things that could be useful and helpful for people who live alone.

This was much more than a simple art project. This was big project.  A necessary and needed project. Full of meaning and purpose. This project could help people. This could be a force for good.

44374128_1577579980352920_r.jpegTaking the leap.

I realized if I was going to take this on, it would be a long-term effort right from the start. This is such an important and timely topic, it would absolutely require honest attention and genuine purpose. There was no way around it. As an artist and a sensitive, deep thinker, I could see this amazing project would be rewarding and exciting on so many levels. I could also see that this project would be a commitment and a responsibility.

I spent several days thinking about the potential this project could have and how it could evolve far beyond the art. I looked up as many articles and statistics as I could find about living alone. I laid out a road map of potential goals for one year, two years, five years, and ten years. I could see how this project would be immediately thought-provoking and how it could inspire lasting resources for people who live alone.

When I considered all the possibilities, I suddenly realized this project was perfect for me. I love to draw portraits and I love to meet new people and hear their stories.

This is something I can do to help others. This is the perfect way to use my creative skills for good. 

44374128_1577580019548175_r.jpegOther ways to help
If you are still reading, you are already helping! One of the biggest reasons I am doing this project is to inspire new ways of understanding and thinking about living alone. I want people to really see their friends and family and neighbors who live alone, and remember to include them. I want this way of living to be more accessible and better connected.

Everyone knows someone who lives alone. You might even live alone yourself, or you might find yourself living alone sometime in the future.

People who live alone are often strong, interesting, creative, and innovative. People who live alone tend to be problem solvers, deep thinkers, adventurous, sensitive, courageous, resilient, and brave.

It's time to see the positive value of living alone and make the effort to really connect with people who live alone. 

It's time to recognize people who live alone are valuable members of our communities.

Thank you for your help!


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Jessica Billey 
Corvallis, OR
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