Freelance Illustrator, Julia Hut, Northern New Jersey, USA

“We’re gonna sink or swim together, and it’s up to us, to decide.”

An early morning run

Julia Hut is a freelance illustrator living in northern New Jersey directly across the Hudson River from NYC. She originally started her working life as an administrator in Central Illinois — but left that world to make a career for herself in art (which she shares has had many ups and downs, along the way).

Before the pandemic, Julia made her living traveling around the country selling her art at conventions, which drew upwards of thousands of attendees that pack into a city’s convention center and spend the day together selling and buying each other’s work.

She has since refocused her efforts into selling her work on Etsy and working on building her digital audience as well as sewing masks and sending them to homeless shelters in NYC.

In her free time, Julia enjoys birds and birdwatching. Conservation is very important to her, so she tries to incorporate these themes within her art and illustrations.

Julia shares her points of view on how humanity needs to come together to face the pandemic’s challenges and the recent sudden social/societal shifts — rather than tearing each other apart.

Read more about Julia’s COVID Chronicle spent rescuing birds, creating art, and generally making the world a better place overall, below:

A socially distant outdoor walk with her husband

Can you tell us a bit about how this has impacted your job as a freelance illustrator?

“In the “before times,” that is, before COVID happened, I made my living travelling around the country selling my art at conventions. These events can be huge — drawing in thousands of attendees who pack into a city’s convention center. The Artist Alley section of a convention hosted rows and rows of small time artists who would set up tables and sell their stuff.

Big anime cons like Otakon in Washington DC or Anime NYC would make up a substantial portion of my income. In mid-spring, all us Artist Alley vendors watched, as conventions announced their cancellations. As we learned more about the virus and watched it grow into a pandemic, it became pretty clear that large gatherings in enclosed spaces wasn’t going to be a thing for a while. I made peace with that idea a long time ago and have since made a pivot to online sales.

Julia at a convention

I have focused my attention mostly on my Etsy shop and building my digital audience. I’m self employed, and my studio is a room in my apartment, so the “work from home” aspect wasn’t particularly new to me.

Oh, and this crisis also inspired me to drag out the old sewing machine and start sewing masks, I did a couple dozen of those and sent them off to homeless shelters in NYC.”

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced during the COVID crisis? 

“I’ve been immensely fortunate in this regard. My own challenges are minimal. My husband has maintained his full-time job, and everyone in our family is safe and healthy. The biggest challenge is mental — in March, when shutdown orders were coming in fast and hard, it felt like iron walls slamming down on every side. It was like: boom, boom, boom.

We’re in northern Jersey, right across the Hudson from New York City. So this region of the country was very much the epicenter for a while. From one day to the next you’d find you could not go to this business or that one, because it was closed. Our plan to drive out to a natural wildlife refuge on a Sunday was suddenly cancelled because on Saturday the Governor forbade all non-essential travel.

In Mid March, I stopped doing my weekly volunteering in the city, because I was suddenly paranoid that New York City itself would close its borders leaving me trapped. I guess the suddenness of restrictions and the uncertainty for how far they’d go. That created some mental distress.

I started looking to history for examples of sudden, frightening societal shifts and wondered if I was living through history now. And then — watching our country’s problems mount up — unemployment, hunger, homelessness all made worse by COVID.

Then the news with George Floyd and the protests, recognizing the urgent need for change and racial equality. Thinking ‘what can I do to help’ and mixing that in with the pandemic fears. As I said, my own challenges are minimal.”

What have you been doing to keep your spirits up on a day-to-day basis?

“Hahaha, honestly? Early morning runs, and feeding the pigeons. I live in one of the most densely packed areas of the country. If I want to go outside and be six feet away from people, I had better do it at 5 a.m. or earlier. The gym closed, so I got used to getting up early-early for runs. The park that’s a mile north has the best pigeon flock.

We bring seed and the pigeons seem to recognize us because these days when we show up, even before we throw seed, they’re flying down to see us. We can identify a lot of the same birds from day-to-day, like the Big White One, the Tremble Tail, the Mean One, the One With the Feather Sticking Out, the Little One, Pink Band, Blue Band, Hurt Foot, the One That’s On Crack, and of course the cinnamon pigeon, known as Cinnapidge.”

Is there anything you feel that you’ve learned about yourself or the world from this experience, that you’d like to share?

“The toilet paper hoarding got me mad. The whole ‘panic buying’ thing, that ‘all for me none for you’ instinct that people get when times get hard. It makes me think of an old Yiddish folktale, I can recount it here, if you don’t mind:

It’s about a traveller who asks to see a glimpse of Hell. It’s a room with people around a big pot of stew. Each person’s arm is tied up with a straight splint, so no one can bend their arms, and they each have a spoon. A person can dip their spoon into the stew, but can’t bring the food to their mouth on account of the splint. The people are angry and frustrated and HUNGRY. This is Hell… 

The traveller asks to see Heaven, and it’s a room with the exact same setup. People around a pot of stew. Each person’s arm has a splint tied around it so they can’t bend. But everyone is well fed and happy. They’ve learned to dip their spoons into the stew and feed the person across from them. They’ve learned to work together. This is Heaven.

I feel like, with the whole hoarding and panic buying thing…. we’re gonna sink or swim together and it’s up to us to decide whether we live in Heaven or Hell.”

Has this experience in any way changed the way that you order your personal priorities in life?  

“Only that I wanted to go home and visit my parents very badly. I wanted to see for myself that they are all right. They are elderly — healthy, but getting older and I worry and pray for them every day. The ‘what ifs’ kind of get to me and I worry.”

Has this travel ban/quarantine situation impacted any other especially important future plans you had laid out?

“Not really, no. Big life changes like getting married and moving and career switches have already taken place. We, my husband and I, have just come out of a period of dramatic change in our life. So currently, it’s holding steady. Life chugs along as normal. I don’t want ‘no new nothing.’ :)”

Anything else at all, you’d like to share? We had connected about a pigeon that you recently saved…

“Oh man, let me tell YOU about this pigeon. So there’s a wildlife rehabilitation center in New York City, in the Upper West Side, it’s called the Wild Bird Fund. They are like a “pigeon hospital” and they care for sick and injured wildlife in the area. In the ‘before times’ I would travel to the city weekly to do volunteering. I got good at cleaning cages and administering medication and generally just handling pigeons. 

So one Friday evening in August, my husband is out for a walk and he sees this giant white pigeon on the sidewalk. It looks healthy and alert but it’s just not flying away. It lets people come really close to it. Not proper pigeon behavior. It’s a King Pigeon, which is this domestic breed that is unfortunately used in dove releases and sold at poultry markets as food. It is specifically bred to be docile and has no natural survival instincts, meaning that when one escapes its cage and is out wandering the street, it is going to be vulnerable to predators and probably definitely going to be attacked by a cat or something. 

So my husband sees this pigeon, he goes home and gets me. We never owned pets but I got my animal carrier and my towel and my seed all ready because OF COURSE I do. The trick to catching a pigeon is coming up behind him with a towel and suddenly shooting out and grabbing him. I suck at this, so it takes us a few tries. An old couple on the street is watching us calling out suggestions and stuff. Kids stop by and ask what we’re doing. Well, anyway. Together we catch him. Bring him home. I don’t have pets but I have a cage all ready because OF COURSE I do. Give him water and seed and let him spend the night. Then in the morning we take the bus into NYC to head to the Wild Bird Fund.

This is August when this is happening, and I have not been into NYC, since mid-March. I know there’s nothing to be afraid of but, hey, I’m a worrier. My mind goes through all the ‘what ifs.’ Riding into the city on the NJ transit bus, coasting through the Lincoln Tunnel, I grip the pigeon’s carrier and I try to steady my breathing. Well, turns out, really there was nothing to be worried about. Port Authority is pretty sparse and so is Times Square. But not like, creepily so. There’s no throngs of people on Avenue of the Americas or 5th Ave, which is, you know, it’s weird to see. You can compare to how it was this time last year. Sure it’s weird. But most people are really good about wearing their masks, I’d say like 90% so that’s really good.

We get to the Wild Bird Fund, we deliver Bird, and I told them that if no one else is going to take Bird, we’d be open to maybe possibly adopting him as a pet. My husband’s idea. So we’ll see what they say…”

The USS Comfort Docked in NYC

You can follow Julia’s art and bird saving adventures on her Instagram at @julia_the_hut for personal art, along with her official business account, @suchgoodbirds. Support her Etsy shop “SuchGoodBirds” and check out the comic version of the Yiddish folktale she described, here.


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