By Jessen O'Brien, Class of 2012
Photos by Emily Lo, Class of 2012
Eleven years ago, a chance encounter changed fourth-year Adama Wiltshire’s life forever.
“My mom used to sell insurance,” Wiltshire said. “So one day I went with her to try to sell insurance to some guy I didn’t know…His door was wide open, which was strange for somebody of his caliber, and the first thing I saw was this huge mural style painting, and I was like, ‘Oh my god’—my jaws just dropped.”
Wiltshire had just walked into the home of Leroy Clarke, one of the most famous artists in her native Trinidad. Clarke took Wiltshire under his wing, teaching her about art and poetry. Before she met him, Wiltshire had only painted for projects at school.
“He showed me not to be afraid of a billion colors, shapes, lines and dots,” said Wiltshire. “Everything would work together in the final product. [P]eople must be willing to dig into a complicated mess to find a story or an answer in the painting.”
Even now, Clarke often sends her poems about her goals and remains active in her life. “He is my father,” said Wiltshire.
Since that time, Wilshire’s art career has blossomed. She has shown her art on campus and at a gallery in Bronzeville. The National Commission for UNESCO in Trinidad and Tobago commissioned her to paint about modern forms of slavery in Norway and Vienna. Wiltshire’s paintings—found in places as far away as Norway and as close as Chicago—all focus on societal relationships.
Most recently, Wiltshire exhibited a collection of portraits called “The Women of the ‘L’” at OMSA. Inspired by “Intro to Black Chicago,” a course taught by Professor Adam Green, Wiltshire began to think about the interactions between women of different neighborhoods. Wiltshire noticed the variety of women who take the CTA and how many more women take it than men. She started taking pictures of women on the train. These pictures turned into sketches, and the sketches became paintings.
“For whatever reason, even on the train people consciously separate themselves,” said Wiltshire. “They decide where the open seat is based on what they think is safe, clean or even familiar. Women make extreme judgments as they ride the train. What does this tell us about the way so many aspects of our culture train us to hate or accept each other?”
When choosing subjects, Wiltshire finds herself drawn both to strangers and friends. Wiltshire paints people because of their personalities and aesthetics—not necessarily because someone is pretty, she said, but often because there is an element of strength in their face.
“When I’m painting, I try to look for the conflicting sides of each person,” said Wiltshire.
Although her BA takes up most of her time now, Wiltshire plans to paint next quarter. “I kind of wanted to look at my experience over the last four years at U. of C. and pick out key moments that either challenged me or changed my perspective on certain things, helped me to grow and not to grow, to capture that as much as possible,” said Wiltshire.
For Wiltshire, painting is more than a tool that allows her to examine her own experiences. “It relaxes me,” she said. “It’s the one thing I can do every single day for twenty-four hours without any sleep.”