Artist Mee Jey started a collaboration with husband Jey Sushil at the beginning of January. She pledged to create a portrait of Sushil every day for a year. Each day, she shows him the finished piece without comment, and he writes a short note in response.
But befitting Jey’s multidisciplinary, eclectic approach, these are not simple depictions of her husband’s physical presence. They are her impressions of his mental state, rendered impressionistically — sometimes from objects Jey finds around the house.
As January turned into February and February turned into March, the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic gradually grew over this evolving body of work.
The entry from Jan. 9 — before social distancing upended everyday life in this country — is an image of a person walking away in profile, but all that is visible is part of one leg. The rest of Jey’s subject is out of the picture. In his accompanying note, Sushil writes: “I am not running away. I just go out to the library.”
By mid-March, the lonely reality of life in a pandemic appears repeatedly in the portraits. On March 23, Jey posted a red cutout of a heart, with pieces missing. The pieces are lined up alongside, with labels like “dance,” “friend,” “walk,” “sleeeeep.”
Her March 26 portrait is a blurry chalk drawing of the view out a window, with two trees standing next to each other but not touching. Sushil’s note reads: “I wanted to touch you then I waited for God knows what. Then a barricade came. Now I am waiting.”
The multidisciplinary and multimedia works in this series flow from her broader artistic practice, in which she often uses recycled textiles and found objects to create sculptural pieces.
Jey knows she is stretching the everyday understanding of what constitutes a portrait. She’s creating multilayered portraits of moments in time, amid what turned out to be a time of global upheaval.
“It is a dialogue between me and my husband and the whole world that’s happening outside,” Jey said. “There’s three levels at which I’m trying to maneuver, and I'm trying to capture all three reflections: of my personal life, my subject and the global happenings.”
She and Sushil, who reported for BBC for 17 years, moved to St. Louis in 2017 so she could earn a master’s degree from Washington University. They have a 2-year-old child. Jey often deals with the sense of feeling alien in an unfamiliar environment. One in-process series includes a collection of differently colored T-shirts with the word “Alien” printed on them.
Jey has lost her job as an arts educator because of the pandemic, just shortly before she was due to renew her visa. She and her husband had planned to travel to India for that purpose in April. That trip now seems unlikely.
The portrait series has become a visual diary of a family striving to cope in an increasingly uncertain environment.
“This one thing keeps me going throughout the day,” Jey said, “and at night when I post it, it’s like, I made it through the day without dying or suffocating from the panic and the pressure that is around me.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year in which Jey and Sushil moved to St. Louis.
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