Painter Ally Zlatar Endures the Isolating Pain of an Invisible Illness [Interview]
Under a skintight sheet of plastic, Ally Zlatar lets out a silent scream. While the Canadian-born artist isn’t shy about sharing personal anguish in her figure paintings, works like “Suffocating in Suffering” underscore how difficult it can be to reach the right ears.
Now living in Australia, Ally explores her identity through the lens of a longstanding eating disorder. “I held the belief of equating achieving thinness with happiness and fulfillment […], and I have developed a distorted relationship with food, weight, and body image,” she writes in her artist statement. Ally goes on to describe the existential crisis that results from prolonged physical and mental isolation: “It is incredibly difficult to express how having an eating disorder can impact the identity of someone who is ill,” she notes.
Using crude brushstrokes to block in flesh tones and bathroom tile, Ally makes her pain excruciatingly physical. Slapdash layers of paint reveal the artist’s emotional urgency, but the frosty colors leave viewers with a sense of visceral cold: We’re meant to feel every late-night tiptoe across the bathroom tile, every metal clink of the sliding-weight scale. In Ally’s work, mental anguish manifests itself through physical details—pale flesh, cool porcelain, hushed screams—that might otherwise be hidden. “I became confined to my body,” she writes of her disorder, reflecting on the relationship between material and mental pain: “The problem was not only the external physical ramifications of the illness, but the internalized struggles,” she continues.
Ally’s work points out that invisible illness and chronic pain often come as a package deal; however, she recognizes that “there is power in the unwell body.” Far from despairing, the artist uses her personal struggles to understand the unseen suffering of others—and invites us all to do the same.
To learn more about Ally’s activism, please visit her charity, The Starving Artist. The research project raises money for the treatment of eating disorders in the creative community.
Scroll through to read our interview with Ally Zlatar, then head to our October 2023 exhibition, Aftereffects, to see her submission, “The Value of Lightness.”
In Today’s Q+Art Interview…
Ally Zlatar discusses the pleasures of a proper sugar rush, why appearance isn’t everything, and making a difference with the tools we have at our disposal.
Which books, art-related or otherwise, belong on every artist’s shelf?
Ally Zlatar: Tough one, but for me, Ways of Curating by Hans Ulrich Obrist is a classic, The Global Art Compass: New Directions in 21st-century Art by Alistair Hicks, and anything by Alain de Botton.
What are you trying to express with your art?
AZ: I am trying to express how my personal stories, narratives, and art can share my story and profound experiences to the larger conversations. In particular, surrounding how my individual perception can contribute to our collective understanding of the human condition.
Would you work for free in exchange for exposure?
AZ: Personally, not often. Unless it is for charity, I have been really busy and trying to focus on my main projects at the moment.
What person has most influenced your work?
AZ: My mom. Her work ethic and perseverance has always inspired me to push myself and to make sure my work is going to make a difference in this world.
What is your favorite guilty pleasure?
AZ: CAKE. I live for the sugar overload.
What do you consider your greatest artistic achievement?
AZ: I think starting my charity. The Starving Artist raises funds through my art practice, publications and exhibitions to help people access inpatient treatment for eating disorders. (Find more information here.)
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
AZ: That my worth is more than my appearance, and I always try to make sure I share that worth with the world.
Is a formal arts education worth the money?
AZ: Can't say for everyone, but for me, I love education, and it helped me become more confident as an artist and definitely challenged me in ways I would have never done without it.
Would you rather be a historically significant or commercially successful artist?
AZ: I'm traditional and want my work to have a lasting impact so historically would be ideal.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your practice?
AZ: I've been focusing on international collaborations with the ease of Zoom, and it has been really good. It has allowed me the time to work in solitude and build these foundations to hopefully be able to see through in the upcoming months.
How do you think the coronavirus pandemic will impact the art world in the long term?
AZ: Tough to be certain, but COVID has really shown us how we can still create digitally and have inclusive networks despite physical restrictions. It will be very interesting to see how we utilize this in the upcoming years.
What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?
AZ: At the moment, I am working on my second book One Body, My Body No Body. Which is an auto-ethnographic publication on my lived-in experience with an eating disorder, so I am very excited to launch this soon! (Find more information here.)
This interview has been edited for length and clarity. All photos published with permission of the artist.
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