I first became aware of Pooja Pittie’s work in 2016 when she was a Hatch resident at Chicago Artists Coalition. I walked into CAC, which was then downstairs from my apartment, and there it was—large, bright, celebratory. I remember thinking it was one of the most fascinating paintings I’d ever seen. At the time, I was sourcing art for the Prudential Building, as well as curating rotating shows at the Union League Club of Chicago. I asked whose work it was, with both venues in mind. Fast-forward, for Pittie’s trajectory is nothing if not fast-forward, and by 2018 I had her paintings on the walls of both the Prudential and the Union League Club buildings.
Born in Mumbai, Pittie was educated at an all-girls school known for academia. When she attended the equivalent of American high school, she had to make a choice of science, arts or commerce. Being from a business family, commerce was chosen for her, although she never ceased drawing. She trained to be a Chartered Accountant, the equivalent of a CPA. In March of 1999, she moved to the United States for an arranged marriage, and lived in Cincinnati where she worked in finance. Though art was never far from her mind, and a sketchbook never far from hand, it was put on the back burner yet again.
In 2000, Pittie was diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, although the symptoms didn’t manifest for a decade. In 2003, when her son was just ten months old, she moved to Chicago to get an MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. Upon graduation, she worked at Unilever in brand finance, but the desire to make art grew ever stronger, so Pittie enrolled part-time at the School of the Art Institute.
“When I enrolled in a continuing-education class at SAIC, there was no room or time for art in my life,” she says. “I had a full-time job in finance and was raising a three-year-old while going through a divorce. Going to painting class just one night a week was a small but significant acknowledgment of my inner creativity,” says Pittie.
This period also saw a venture into bespoke children’s books on Indian culture. She produced three titles, and her dad gave her advice: “Scale it up,” he said. It resonated with her and still does. Pittie is someone who never does anything halfway.
Pittie pursued art wherever she could and soon she found a mentor in painter and instructor Yvette Weijergang. With Yvette’s encouragement, and through residencies at CAC and Hyde Park Art Center, Pittie established a full-time painting practice. Her work became more daring, less subtle, and the colors she had grown up surrounded by in India burst onto her canvases. Through a circuitous route, gallerist Tom McCormick saw the same painting that wowed me at CAC, hung it in his booth at EXPO Chicago, and sold it. “I was immediately charmed when I first saw Pooja’s work at the Hyde Park Art Center,” McCormick says. Pittie, now represented by the gallery, has since had two sold-out solo shows at McCormick Gallery. “It has been a privilege for us to watch her develop as a painter and to see all the recognition she’s garnered along the way,” McCormick says.
As Pittie’s condition progresses, she has become even more driven, if in a different direction, to accommodate her physical limitations. The painting of very large, gestural canvases is getting more challenging, but the making of evocative, exciting work will never cease for Pittie. She has turned to watercolor on paper, and to knitting yarn and thread of many types, from hemp to paper and linen. The same veiled, “Now you see it, now you don’t” aspect that her early dotted canvases incorporated is applied to small vessels and translucent knitted stone-like objects. This work is unique, enticing and more importantly, a fuller representation of the changing relationship between her body and mind.
Watercolor on handmade paper may replace acrylic on canvas and knitting and embroidery may supersede brushstrokes, but Pittie’s passion for creating will not fade. It took her years to start living her goal of being an artist, and nothing will stop her. “I deal with my disability in my art the same way I deal with it in other areas of my life,” Pittie says. “My practice is intimately linked to my disability, and it is a constant process of learning, accepting and adapting, as my condition progresses.”
As an artist with a disability, Pittie advocates for equity and accessibility through her involvement with disability culture initiatives led by organizations including 3Arts and UIC and by serving on the Board of the Hyde Park Art Center.
In November, Pittie was awarded a 3Arts Next Level/Spare Room Award, which is a $50,000 unrestricted grant given each year to three artists who have previously received 3Arts grants, to further their work. One of Pittie’s paintings has just been acquired by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Adding these accolades to her long list of accomplishments and recent commissions seems to fulfill her father’s advice. The painting I saw back in 2017 was aptly titled “It Will All Be Fine in The End”—a perfect motto for an artist who never gives up her dreams.