Alita Van Hee (b. 1976) is a drawer and sculptor. Her work is charged with a playful sense of experimentation, bold color combinations, and repetition. For the greater part of a decade, Van Hee has drawn vibrant portraits of her heroes (largely artists, musicians, writers, and activists) using a distinctive visual language of stripes, dots, and ellipses. Figures like Memphis Minnie and Toni Morrison twinkle, tremble, and radiate - as if they’ve been translated into pure energy. Van Hee also works in the third dimension, sculpting primordial ceramic figures that seem to be in the process of mutating, dividing, and multiplying. They’re covered in colorful snatches of verse (“images sizzle and simmer inside of ashen taxis”).
Writing is a great, though often private, passion for Van Hee. She has written several novels, the most recent of which chronicles an HIV-positive songwriter’s pilgrimage to Mars. Drawn to poetry since adolescence, Van Hee naturally made the jump to an improvisational, folk-influenced mode of songwriting. She even performed on her Martin acoustic guitar alongside outsider music legend Wesley Willis in the late 90s.
In the first years of the new millennium, Van Hee started to experience auditory hallucinations (hearing voices) and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. She describes falling into a practice of graphomania - scrawling the words spoken by these voices on every available surface. “When you’re bombarded, it’s hard to channel everything,” she says. Van Hee began making inked scrolls, the words flowing together with sketches of birds and figures. With careful treatment, the artist was eventually able to manage her condition. While she’s found equilibrium in her life, the wild language and insistent repetition of her artwork draws from the experience of this psychological condition.
Van Hee was born in Lawrence, Kansas, and has also lived in California and Texas. Her father was a self-taught artist as well, and Van Hee fondly recalls frolicking in his studio, her role somewhere between studio assistant and untamed beast. “I drew a lot of electric animals - full of zig-zags,” she described. Her dad was also a great fan of stripes and embedded text, elements that seem to have drifted down the line into his daughter’s spirited and unpredictably evolving work.
Van Hee has lived in Chicago since 2020 and joined Project Onward in 2023.