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Charlie Fitz: Artist of the Week

This weeks we will be talking to writer, artist and scholar Charlie Fitz, talking about her work in digital collage and poetry as well as her continuous work in resisting and challenging the expectation that the sick person be patient.

Image description: a black and green background with the artists body in a bathing suit in the top right corner with arms spread out. Overlaid text in pink reads "doctor said it's all in her head. Doctor said she's better off dead". Bold text in white reads Charlie Fitz @charliejlfitz.

If you are interested in seeing more of Charlie Fitz's artwork you can follow her Instagram page @charliejlfitz.

What drives you to make art? 

I have always had a drive to make things, when I was a child I would save every box or wrapper and make collages or build cardboard dollhouses, it’s always been a meditative process for me. My focus as a teenager was theatre, dance and performance art and then when I became chronically ill in my early twenties and experienced a lot of gaslighting from medical institutions painting, sculpture and collage was a way to cope with the pain and uncertainty of my situation. Now that I share my work and it’s no longer just for me, I am also driven by the content and using the work to explore parts of my illness experience, or injustices I or other people I know encounter.

Can you briefly tell us about yourself and the artwork you make? 

I am a sick and disabled artist, writer and Medical Humanities scholar. I have a rare genetic connective tissue condition called Classical Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome and multiple comorbid conditions. This causes dysfunctions and complications throughout my whole body and there are

very little treatment options in the UK, so sufferers are often left battling for healthcare. Last year, I had to fundraise to get a life saving spine fusion abroad, as my neck was collapsing. This year I was awarded a Wellcome Trust funded Studentship for the Medical Humanities research I am carry out at Birkbeck exploring illness, trauma, shame and healthcare access. I’m married to Oscar Vinter, who is an artist and audiovisual PhD researcher at the University of Birmingham.

My art practise, lived experience and academic work are very much entangled. I have an ongoing

creative project called Sick of being Patient, which has really become a sort of mantra, it’s currently made up of solo and collaborative projects that aim to resist and challenge the expectation that the ‘sick’ person be patient to medical institutions, the biomedical worldview and a society that is systemically failing the chronically ill and disabled. I have a website that hosts various projects but in the future I would like it to manifest as an exhibition and a book, with a view to building a community which hosts other peoples’ projects.

How do you approach creating a new piece of artwork? 

It’s quite varied, I am always working on multiple pieces at anyone time. I go between different

mediums based on what is accessible to me at the time because my illness fluctuates. I usually start with an idea, subject or artefact that leads the process; such as an image or poem. For example, I’m currently creating digital collages with images taken by Oscar of me in hospital the first few days after my fusion surgery. 18 months on and it’s a trauma I am ready to try to face and work through, so I’m reworking the images and spending time with them, making space for them. I think the process is healing, time will tell, but it’s something I have to do right now. So new works usually come about quite organically and how I approach it is dependant on each work, the subject matter and why I’m doing it.

Charlie Fits, There are Many Myths, digital collage, 2020

Image description: A black and white background image of a galaxy with an overlaid diamond of a blue galaxy. Men stand in the corners looking and pointing at the centre. In the centre is an oval of pink. On the top left corner is a cut out of text reading "There are many myths about the space below your belly button".

Many of your artworks make use of digital collage. Why do you choose this process to work with? 

There are both practical and creative reasons for why I frequently use this medium, I was very into the avant-garde 3d collages of Joseph Cornell at school and I follow and admire the work of many collage artists now. A lot of the work I make is about reframing an experience, specific situation or trauma, either to give myself back power over a situation in which I felt powerless or to make connections to a wider cultural phenomenon.

Collage lends itself really well to this, as I can include images of myself, creating re-contextualised self-portraits. I can access online archives of historic medical artefacts for this context or include different personal artefacts and poetry or things I have written - creating layers of representation. I can create the narrative around the portrait, I find power in that process.

And practically, digital collages are both more accessible to me when I’m at my sickest, as I can do them whilst lying down or leaning back on a tablet or phone. Additionally, for the last few years, because of my health, Oscar and I have lived between his family home and my family home, so there is a space issue. When we have our own place again and I have a room or studio dedicated totally to my art practise I can fill that space with pieces but for now the digital form makes a lot more sense, as I’m not restricted, I can create as much as I want to/ am able to.

Do you find there is more flexibility when using digital methods of making compared to more

traditional techniques? 

There is more flexibility in the ways I have already described, but also in terms of going back on a creative decision or making multiple versions of the same piece. But there are restrictions too, I do also like the materiality of working with fabric, paint and clay, I find working with huge paintings and sculpting more meditative. I often make part of a piece with certain materials, then photograph or scan it and finish the piece digitally. I also have a lot of digital designs that I plan to print onto fabric and then manipulate or add things, so the process goes both ways. I actually work with fabric and sewing a lot, I currently have a lot of pieces boxed away under beds and above wardrobes waiting to be brought together in future exhibitions or a studio space.

That being said, I also want to develop my digital skills, I have collaboratively made a few short films with Oscar and I’m very keen to make more and expand into VR work, I’m interested in digital sculpting and animation as a way to create work for VR.

Charlie Fitz, Lactation, multimedia.

Image description: Photograph of naked torso with two white circles over each breast with the text "common Side effects include lactation". Text is overlaid on top which reads "Domperidone is used by new mothers to promote lactation. It's used by others for nausea. I lactate so that I can eat. My milk will never be needed."

Could you name any artists that have inspired your art practice? 

As a teen I was inspired by the physical theatre of Complicité and DV8. I grew up loving artists like; Leonora Carrington, Leonor Fini, Paul Delvaux, Egon Schiele and of course Frida Kahlo, who all instilled me with a love for painting.

There are so many artists and creatives living and working now who influence my art practise often in very different ways, some as friends and some as artists I admire such as; my husband Oscar Vinter who is the biggest influence on my work, Dana Kearley, Johanna Hedva, Pixy Liao, Krystyna Fitzharris, Rupi Dhillon, Claudia Walder and the work she does at Able Zine and Brothers Sick who are an artist duo I only came across this year but their work is incredible.

The disability arts community generally really influences me there are so many exciting sick and

disabled artists, I could make a very long list, but Able Zine, Lutte Collective, Shape Arts and Disability Arts Online are some of the places I know showcasing incredible sick and/or disabled artists.

You describe your art practice as being aimed at resisting and challenging the expectation that the sick person be patient. Can you tell us more about how you achieve this process? 

This is something I try to do through my creative practise and through my academic work. I used to think it was just a case of improving representation and taking back authorial ownership over your narrative, centring the sick persons voice or words in their stories. Which resists the narratives that are told about sick and/or disabled people. So focusing on memoirs rather than doctors records, or self portraits rather than objectifying media that only includes sick and/or disabled people in narratives of pity porn or inspiration porn. And that is important, particularly intersectional representation of sick and disabled experiences, which still is very lacking. I have realised it’s more than that though, it’s more than taking control of my “story” and telling it through self-portraits, or poems, or non-fiction writing; to resist the expected roles of the sick, there also needs to be a critical element to this representation. As I’m the product of the culture that has birthed ableism, medical paternalism and cultures of shame, so those things are in part internalised. Now, I am trying to explore experiences more critically, not only representing and raising awareness of something that I have experienced but thinking critically about historical, social, political and cultural conceptions, phenomena and power structures that have all had a hand in the situation and my own worldview and potential internalised biases.

A piece I wrote for dubble, ‘It’s All in Your Head’ – The Dangerous Legacy of the ‘Sick Role’ accompanied by a series of digital collages on the same issue, is an example of this more critical

exploration where I try to examine and present my own experiences along side critically examining examples of pop culture which perpetuate the tropes and narratives I am trying to resist. Whilst tracing some of the historical antecedents of these narratives.

The series and exhibition Radical Acts of Care, created in collaboration with Oscar Vinter which also included community submitted postcards tried to critically approach notions of care whilst also exploring the care elements to our relationship. Additionally, the exhibition was an act of community care as it’s original aim was to raise awareness and funds for my surgery.

The digital collage, Be patient is an attempt to resist the silencing of medical gaslighting by re-

contextualising photos Oscar had taken of me into collages, whilst also critically examining doctor patient power dynamics through including words from a poem I had written previously.

Assisted self-portraits first published in the AbleZine newsletter is attempting to do something

similar but with shame; resisting the shame associated with being a sick and disabled women. Whilst creating a new medium of photography, ‘Assisted self-portraits’ founded in the blending of artistic collaboration and physical care.

At present the sick experience I am generally centring is my own and Oscar’s as my partner and carer but my end goal is to have a bigger impact, curating exhibitions and books focused on illness experiences and challenging the biomedical worldview and institutional medical culture, not only with my own artistic and academic output but by uplifting others.

What one thing would you like to change about the art industry today?

Perceptions about disability arts and artists in the mainstream. Mainstream institutions generally focus on representation and accessibility for audiences (if at all) but rarely for artists and art workers. The mainstream art industry doesn’t seem to realise what disabled artists have to offer. Being sick and disabled in my experience, in a ableist world is often a test of creativity and resourcefulness. Often, but not always, sick and disabled artists are not coming out of art schools or institutions, I think this can make for interesting, innovative and novel work. Mainstream art that overlooks sick and disabled artists is missing out in my opinion. And then even within disability arts there is lack of intersectional representation in leadership roles, so just all round better diversity and not tokenistic inclusion, but diversity in arts leadership, curation and so on.

Charlie Fitz, Operación, oil paint on board

Image description: an oil painting of a hand holding a chopped orange at the end of a string on top of a blue background with a white silhouette of a figure.

What projects have you recently been working on? 

Although for the next 10 months my MA in Medical Humanities is the main focus, I also have quite a few collaborative projects bubbling away; a small artist collective with two other artists, a photo project for a magazine, a poetry and art pamphlet with a brilliant writer.

As I mentioned above I have been working on digital collages re-contextualising photographs from hospital, I haven’t decided what project these images will become a part of, or if they will be a stand alone series. And I have some ongoing personal projects I am working on, a project called Undressing Trauma which is a mixture of digital work and fabric work addressing the medical gaslighting I experienced over the last 6 years and how this overlaps with rape culture. This is a hard project for me to work on as I’m going through very triggering personal artefacts but it’s also important to me, so it’s something I have to take breaks from but always come back to. I am also working on a solo poetry pamphlet and I have been gathering material for a critical hybrid memoir-essay book and I am expanding Assisted Self-Portraits as I have only created a fraction of what I plan to do with that project.

What inspired you to make this kind of artwork? 

A lot of different things, but many of the projects I am working on are inspired by a need to bear

witness to my trauma, understand the context which led to it and challenge the structures which

perpetuate that context; to heal and play my part in eventually bringing about structural and cultural change and some kind of justice, maybe not for me, but maybe for the sick women, femmes and non-binary people who follow in mine and others footsteps. I am also fuelled by a pride in disability and the disability communities I have become a part of which centre anti-capitalist love, care and self-worth; disability pride is a radical act of resistance.

Your work often includes writing and poetry. What interests you about combining these different

processes within your artwork? 

I’m dyslexic, I had special educational needs interventions all throughout primary school, age 6 my parents were told I would never cope in a mainstream school and I didn’t read a book independently until I was studying for my GCSE’s. But I guess I felt like I had something to prove because however difficult I found it, English was the subject I put the most time and energy into. I studied joint honours English and Drama at undergraduate at Goldsmith and my focus was often on language and power. The power of communication, of education and knowledge, or being able to understand and advocate for yourself, the suppression of communication and language, the power of a diagnosis or a label. The liminal spaces which are missed and fall between words, the experiences beyond and outside of language. I like exploring the relationship of different kinds of communication and representation. And as a sick person your life can be very different based on the words a doctor decides to give to you, I think that power should never be underestimated.

Charlie Fitz, "It Was a Pleasure", digital collage

Image description: A black and white digital image with swirled abstract pattern, overlaid are cut out of text transcript from a letter.

Can you give us an insight into the experiences you have had during the pandemic and how you have adapted to still create art? 

It’s been a very polarising experience, on the one hand, I am clinically vulnerable, so I have been

shielding since March, it’s been a scary time for myself and the sick and/or disabled people I know. We have seen the intensification of eugenicist language in politics and the media when it comes to who will be prioritised and receive care if our healthcare system can no longer manage. At the beginning of the first lockdown I was very triggered, as I was returning to an existence similar to one I had occupied for many years, when I housebound by my symptoms. And my health has deteriorated since March because of less access to healthcare, physio and various other knocks to my illness management.

On the other hand, there has also been these surprising gains in accessibility, I have been able

exhibit, study, take part in performances, poetry readings and activism all online. Remote social

events were not a thing when I was housebound previously. My individual creative process hasn’t

changed significantly because I have never had access to a studio or an art school. But my

collaborative creation has improved vastly, there have been so many more remote opportunities to create collaboratively, as large parts of the world went online, I hope these small but vital gains aren’t lost when people move on from the pandemic. And I hope that the same creative energy continues and is brought to solutions to access generally, not just remote solutions and my biggest hope is that this pandemic does not cut sick and/or disabled people out of society and the arts further, as started to happen over the summer.

One last message from the artist:

Both with my art and activism, I have experienced the feeling that I’m an imposter, that I’m

undeserving of those titles. Even when others, observing my work have given me those titles I have resisted. I think the elitism of the art world can add to that feeling. A musician is more likely to refer to themselves as a musician the moment they create music, they don’t wait for institutions, an industry or critiques to validate that identity in the same way artists do. I now think about art in that way, when you create art you become an artist, you do not need the validation of the art market; although if you want to spend all your time making art I’m sure it can help.

You can follow Charlie Fitz's Instagram page @charliejlfitz to see more of her artwork.

If you are interested in being featured as an Artist of the Week you can fill out a short application form here.

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