As a visual artist in Chicago’s vibrant art community, Pooja Pittie is on a life-long journey to accept the unexpected obstacles in her life, while advocating for better representation and support for artists with disabilities.
Learn more about Pooja and her thoughtful approach to life and art below.
Photos by Abbi Chase and Petra Ford
Born and raised in Mumbai, India, Pooja moved to the United States in 1999 to pursue her MBA from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. After slowly embracing her developing skills as a painter, she dared to connect with other local artists and never looked back.
“For me, Chicago is the city where I’ve grown into so many different identities, and it really feels like home,” Pooja explained. “I’ve been here for 17 years now, and I raised my son here. I had my first corporate job here, and I went through a divorce here. When I slowly started embracing the artistic part of myself and really coming into my own as an artist, I found the art community here to be so welcoming.”
When reflecting on the many twists and turns of her own journey, Pooja highlights the importance of noticing the small victories along the way. “When I talk about my journey now, it feels like I made this massive leap, but I still remember how slowly the process went and how many baby steps I took,” Pooja said. “I could not had dreamed I’d ever had a career as an artist, even despite painting and drawing my whole life. My disability definitely gave me the perspective to question where my energy was going. Energy is a limited resource, so I had to decide what I was going to spend my energy on every day.”
As Pooja continued her journey as an artist, she got involved with the Chicago Artists Coalition Opens in a new tab and Hyde Park Arts Center Opens in a new tab. “Going through those programs, almost overnight, I felt I was part of that community. I would say Chicago has a very small, tight-knit artist community in a big city.” One of the things Pooja loves most about the Chicago arts community is the commitment to equity and open dialogue. “We have a lot of conversations around equity, and as a board member for both of those organizations, I feel like I have a true voice at the table to share my experiences and give my recommendations.”
Through her personal experiences, Pooja has grown to accept the imbalance that comes in life—especially for those living with disabilities. “I think that as a person with a disability, I had such a revelation when I realized I don’t have to chase after this perfect balance between body and mind. We’re always seeking balance in all parts of our lives, and it may not always be achievable. And that’s okay.”
Pooja is also involved with 3Arts Opens in a new tab, a residency program at the University of Illinois at Chicago Opens in a new tab that advocates for local women artists, artists of color, and artists with disabilities. Recently she completed her residency and she credits the program for truly recognizing the needs of those with disabilities.
“Many residency programs out there in the world are not very friendly with artists with disabilities,” Pooja explained. “Some programs include traveling to remote locations, which may not be feasible. Or people may need a caregiver, and those types of accommodations aren’t always possible.”
During her residency, Pooja was determined to focus on the imbalance of body and mind. She rented a spacious studio space and started mapping out how she could use her body in new ways—then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and the uncertainty of safety lingered. “The entire goal of my fellowship was flipped on its head,” Pooja said. “Instead of making really large works, I opted for small pieces of art. I was too anxious to paint in those early days, and this program was an invaluable resource for me.”
As she has met more and more artists in the disability community, her understanding of needs and the importance of representation grew. As conversations about the ingrained inequalities and inaccessibility in the museum community have grown over the last year, Pooja believes emerging institutions like the museum at the future Obama Presidential Center have limitless potential to change the way museums are built and how they engage with their visitors.
“In terms of physical accessibility, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) clearly lays out what museums should be doing,” Pooja explained. “But people tend to forget that not everyone living with disabilities is the same. What would make a space accessible for me might not make it accessible for somebody else with different disabilities.”
In January, Pooja joined her fellow 3Arts artists for a Disability Culture Leadership Initiative: A Chicago Model Opens in a new tab panel, where she shared how her disability has shaped her activism. “I think the activism part of my work relates more to how I talk and present my art to give people access to the disability community,” Pooja described. “Then people get an insight into our experiences and get to see how powerful our lives are. Our lives are not based on a lack of ability or some deficiency, and I think it’s very interesting to be able to communicate that through abstract painting.”