Every Picture Tells a Story

New England Yards, 2021

Jessica Brilli ’00 paints from old Kodachrome slides. She is drawn to mid-century suburban American scenes, bringing them to life with unique color palettes. Brilli, who earned a B.F.A. in painting at URI, has shown her work in group and solo exhibitions across the United States and abroad, but her latest exhibition space, book covers, is bringing her work to a broad new audience.

There are many places a painter might display their work—museums, galleries, private collections. One that might not come as quickly to mind is the cover of a book.

In 2020, Jessica Brilli’s painting, “Night Swimming,” was used in the design of the book cover for Rumaan Alam’s bestseller, Leave the World Behind. The success of the novel, which was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award, has drawn even more attention to the work of Brilli ’00.

So, how does a painter’s work land on the cover of a critically acclaimed bestseller?

“A lot of my work is online,” Brilli says. “And from there, a couple of publishers have reached out to ask me if they could use my work.”

One person who found her work online and reached out was Allison Saltzman, a senior art director at HarperCollins in New York City. Saltzman discovered Brilli’s work on an art blog, The Jealous Curator, in 2012. When Saltzman was tasked to work on the cover for Charles Simic’s 2019 collection of poetry, Come Closer and Listen, she turned to Brilli and a working relationship was formed.

Book cover of Leave the World Behind, by Rumaan Alam

“The book is, like, 90 percent realistic; then there’s this little bit where you’re like, ‘Did that just happen? Is this really happening?’” Saltzman explains. “Jessica’s painting worked perfectly because it straddles the line of real and surreal.”

Brilli, originally from Long Island, N.Y., currently living in Quincy, Mass., looks to the past to inspire her work. Many of her paintings feature homes, buildings, cars, and scenes from the mid-20th century. The prolific Brilli captures the sleek lines and design of this period in her paintings.

“It’s hard to put a finger on why I like the era so much,” Brilli says. “I think it’s the simplicity of the design and the elegance of things. The cars back then were almost like sculptures.”

The source material for her paintings is another art form, photography. Brilli had been using family photographs for years before she hit a upon the idea of buying slides that people were selling online. When she buys the slides, she owns the rights and can use them as subjects for her paintings, like “Night Swimming.”

“I’m inspired by the good photography, mostly. Kodachrome slides, things like that,” Brilli says.“I gravitate toward pools as a subject. I found some really awesome photos that were night shots at this pool in Oklahoma, so I decided to purchase the slides.”

Brilli is represented by Skidmore Contemporary Art in Santa Monica, California and by Jessica Hagen Fine Art and Design in Newport, R.I., and recently had her own exhibition, “On the Brink” at Walker-Cunningham Fine Art in St. Louis, Missouri. Her next exhibit just may be on the shelf in a bookstore near you. •

—John Canale

View more of Brilli’s artwork at

* Editor’s note: This story includes changes made after print publication at the subject’s request.