Photo/video artist Jessica Ann Peavy’s work causes us to question what is true, what is simply assumed, and specifically, how our assumptions relate to culture and gender stereotypes. Her video, performance, and photography work often incorporates characters who tell stories from different points of view, causing viewers to wonder whom to believe, and how to choose who is most credible.
For example, in many of Jessica’s videos, she or another actress tells one side of a story, while another person’s version is juxtaposed into the frame. In the case of Parable#1: Katelyn and the Young Black Man, this takes the form of a male voice-over, and in the case of Parable #5: La Policia and the Unknown Language, Spanish subtitles (view excerpts of both on Jessica’s website).
In a recent street performance on the Lower East Side, “Two Lies and a Truth,” Jessica and two other actors told different stories and had random passersby guess which one of them was telling the truth. Jessica kept a tally of how often each actor was considered credible, and was surprised discover how often “people don’t believe people from their own culture,” and how factors like a change in hairstyle and accent could influence whether or not the same person would be considered believable on different days.
Jessica considers these types of projects examples of “socially engaged work,” and is passionate about “engaging directly” with communities outside art gallery walls, through projects like “Two Lies and a Truth.” In an earlier social project in 2007, Jessica had handed out free samples of “fat back,” an unhealthy type of lard used in cooking, on Harlem streets. On the back of each piece of meat were statistics about the rate of nutrition-related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes in Black and Latino communities.
In addition to showing students samples of some of these videos as well as a recent photography project, Jessica also discussed how she supports herself as an artist. “I don’t get paid for my community work,” she explained, “so I have to strike a balance between that and producing some objects that people can collect and buy.” Jessica often re-edits still shots from her videos so they can be sold as entirely separate pieces. She also teaches photography and video in a variety of school and community settings to help support her art. She has a successful track record of winning grants and artist residencies to help fund the production of new work as well as make new professional connections–including the residency program at Smack Mellon, and her current studio at Lower Manhattan Cultural Council.
One of Jessica’s main pieces of advice for students was, “Don’t be afraid of rejection, or let rejection discourage you.” She explained how artists may need to apply to a dozen different residency programs to get accepted into just one of them. “If you keep putting your work out there, sooner or later, people will start to notice.”