Pooja Pittie's Colorful Energy
BY ALISON REILLY
In February 2020, artist Pooja Pittie rented a large studio at Mana Contemporary. Supported by a 3Arts Residency Fellowship at the University of Chicago at Illinois, she was looking forward to the opportunity to create large-scale paintings, “moving as much of my body as possible, laying down paper on the floor, getting really close to the surface,” she explained to me during a recent conversation. However, almost as soon as she had moved into the new space, Governor Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order for all Illinois residents. Like many across the country, she was in a state of shock. Although Pittie has lived in the U.S. for 22 years and considers Chicago her home, her family lives in India, so her feelings of isolation and anxiety were compounded by the distance between them.
Fortunately, Pittie still had her home studio set up, so she could continue to work, “but it didn’t feel like I could just continue to paint as before,” she said. Instead, she gravitated towards drawing and started making small-scale compositions with stitching on top, using yarn she had at home. “I really delved deep into stitching, sewing, knitting, not in any skilled manner,” she admitted, “just remembering what I was taught at my all-girls school in India.”
Pittie was diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of progressive muscular dystrophy in 2000, but her symptoms did not begin appearing until about a decade later. “I was able-bodied for many years living with the diagnosis,” she told me.
While she was looking forward to experimenting in the large studio at Mana, she acknowledges that her home studio is most conducive to her workflow. “With my needs, it’s pretty clear that I need workspace at home. Now with my complementary practice of working with drawings and yarn, that happens in my living room in the afternoons when I’m too tired to be in the studio,” she explained.
“My day is divided by energy. I’m the most energetic in the morning so I go into my studio, and then when I’m tired, I’m creating from the couch. But I’m creating a lot. I spend a lot of hours with the drawings. Not to sound like a cliché, but the studio can be anywhere. I just need to keep creating and doing something with my hands.”
Pittie’s drive to make art has been present throughout her life, even before she identified as an artist. Growing up in India, as a child, she taught herself to draw by copying cartoons, images from fashion magazines, and still-life pictures. Although her peers noticed her art skills, she was focused on becoming financially independent, inspired by her father who was an industrialist. She excelled at school, eventually earning accounting certifications and pursuing a career in finance. In 1999, she moved to the U.S. to be with her then-husband, and, although she considered going to art school, she instead earned an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago. Her interest in art persisted, and, after her divorce in 2005, she started taking evening painting classes through SAIC’s Continuing Education program. While she enjoyed the classes she was taking, making art was not a priority in her life as she was balancing the responsibilities of being a young, single mother and running her own children’s book business.
“My studio, my space has changed so much in a very short span,” Pittie explained. In 2015 when she started regularly drawing, “it was on my couch. Then I moved to the dining table with watercolors, then into my little home office. I set up my easel there and it eventually became a full-blown studio, and then I moved to a bigger apartment so that I could have a larger studio space.”
The continuous expansion of her space to accommodate a growing art practice felt natural to her. While she had exceled as a businesswoman, she said, “It’s not my innate skill, which is why I always felt so inadequate. My dad is a natural-born entrepreneur. I thought that’s who I was, and he thought that’s who I was, and everyone else around me probably thought that too, but I didn’t feel like that. Establishing a regular art practice really made me feel like much more of an expert than all my years of training.”
Pittie made her first acrylic painting in 2016, and since then, she has completed residencies at Chicago Artists’ Coalition and Hyde Park Art Center and gained the support of McCormick Gallery. This fall, a series of new paintings and drawings will be on display at the gallery in the West Loop. “My current work is very motivated by needing to express energy, which is diminishing and is an extremely precious resource for me,” she said. “I’m finding that color is the way that I’m expressing this energy. Both in the paintings, the drawings, and the fiber work that I’m doing, the starting point seems to always be color.”
Her recent abstract paintings feature looser, more gestural brushstrokes. In her previous work, she overlaid small dots on these marks, as if to mask some of their irregularities. As she spent more time with her drawings and weavings, she began to move away from the repetitive, precise stokes. Her new canvases teem with an energy similar to that found in the abstract expressionist paintings of Joan Mitchell.
“I work on multiple pieces at the same time, so I’ll start several canvases when I’m feeling energetic and I really want to capture that energy, and they’ll rotate on and off the easel,” Pittie explained.
While she now fully embraces her life as an artist, in retrospect, Pittie has identified two major fears that delayed her in pursuing her passion. “How could I be an artist if I haven’t been to art school?” she said, “And I saw how physically challenging it was. I used to wonder how am I going to carry canvases back and forth? How am I going to carry a portfolio? I didn’t use mobility devices back then but still it was difficult for me.”
Pittie was raised by her parents to believe that to be successful, you must attain the highest possible education in that field. “If you’re not ready to do that or if, for some reason, you haven’t done that, then what makes you think that you can have a committed career?” she asked herself. Her second major fear is familiar to many artists, “What if I get bored of making art every day? Or if I enjoyed it all these years, but what if I don’t want to make it every day?” She nevertheless admits, “Both of those notions are so laughable right now. They haven’t mattered one bit. I am definitely not bored! These are the fears, the blocks, you put in front of yourself, and they can be quite difficult to ignore.”
Along with her exhibition at McCormick Gallery this fall, Pittie is working on a commission by the University of Chicago to create a work for the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this fall. This is the first private commission that she has accepted since January 2021, and while she is very excited to work with the University of Chicago, she wants to be careful not to overwhelm herself.
“I feel like I’ve been running so much since 2016. I’m extremely grateful for how quickly things progressed and how organically they’ve grown, but during the pandemic, I have been reevaluating what is truly important. I am trying to hold onto all that slowness.”
Pooja Pittie: New Paintings, opens September 16 at McCormick Gallery