AFTER a childhood characterised by instability, Ottoa Wilson has found her balance in art. But it did not happen overnight.
“As a young child, I didn’t really live at one place, I lived with my mother at different times and my father at different times and my different sisters at different times. I didn’t really have a steady place,” she told the Jamaica Observer in a recent interview.
By the time she was born, Wilson’s parents had already separated. Now 23 years old, she has never seen them together and, with her father now dead, never will.
Meanwhile, Wilson said that her formative years were spent in no less than eight communities across St James, Westmoreland and Kingston, leaving and returning to each of them several times.
Each time she was moved to a community, she was also moved to a different school. Whenever she left and returned to that community, she would return to the school.
“Each time you leave and then go back to the place, you’d go back to the school. You just hit and run,” Wilson said. “I think a major part of this was because of just what is happening in society where family ties are just not strong."
While the unstable home situation weighed on her psyche, her academic performance suffered.
“To be honest, if you look at my handwriting [even today], you can tell that I didn’t catch on to penmanship,” Wilson said, between chuckles.
“The foundation principles that you learn in [primary] school, I did not harness a lot of that. Because of the instability, I was not able to focus, so a lot of that didn’t soak in. Some of them you did learn, but not as much as you should; not like someone who is settled.”
Although challenged by poverty and violence in some of the communities where she lived, Wilson, who recently completed a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts, decided early she did not want to continue living as she was.
“It wasn’t until about grade six that I started to have an awakening sort of thing, where I started to think that I didn’t want to continue living the same life I had been living, where I was seeing the family struggle as a result of a lack of education and without the principle of marriage,” Wilson said.
Up to that point, she said she had not learnt the appropriate social skills and did not know how to communicate well or speak properly. Wilson was also so behind academically that when she finally decided she wanted to make something of her life, she had to work hard to catch up.
Her efforts yielded fruit; she sat the Grade Six Achievement Test (GSAT) and was placed at Oberlin High.
“When I passed the GSAT, my sister, whom I was living with in Kingston at the time, was very surprised because of the level that she had me. It was a big surprise,” Wilson said.
However, not much had changed in her family life and after completing her first year at Oberlin High, she was moved back to Montego Bay. Fortunately, Wilson had managed to do well academically while at Oberlin High. As a result, she was granted a transfer to the traditional all-girls institution Mount Alvernia High in the western resort city.
Wilson was enrolled there for four years — the longest time she had spent at any school.
Her home life stayed the same.
“Every place you go, every home, has a different character so it’s always like taking on a new personality,” the young woman said, referencing the vulnerability to violence that she felt while living with her father at Canterbury in Montego Bay — in a house without proper doors or windows.
Her mother, a domestic helper who lived in a different inner-city community, Glendevon, tried to escape the violence.
“My mom tried her best to relocate. She got a capture land [in another community]. It was nowhere near a perfect house. I remember when she carried us in the night, I saw just a zincup place,” Wilson said.
“She had collected all sorts of material and just put it together and that was the house. I remember the night, I said ‘Mommy, this is the house?’ and I said ‘Mommy, it looks like a hut’. As a child, I didn’t really understand how much that might have hurt her because she was trying her best,” she added.
And while her mother struggled to care for the family, Wilson wrestled to keep it together at school. But the instability in her home life had so affected her that she became withdrawn and unable to communicate with school mates and was unable to make friends.
Her guidance counsellor, recognising her academic potential, referred her to The Committee for the Upliftment of the Mentally Ill’s children’s programme, through which she was provided with psychological care.
It was a long road to psychological and emotional wellness for Wilson, but she made it, thanks, in large part, to her discovered love for art.
She passed seven subjects at the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate level, before once again moving to Kingston, this time to pursue her passion for art.
She majored in painting and minored in ceramics at the Edna Manley School of the Visual and Performing Arts. Supported financially through a partloan, part-scholarship from Jamaica Money Market Brokers Wilson completed her degree with a bang at her final-year exhibition. Her pieces gained her praise and recognition from her batch mates and school community.
Art, Wilson said, was initially only therapy for her.
“But overtime, I became more aware that art is not just about the drawing or painting; it’s like you are advocating for society, it’s a tool. You can help people with art in so many ways. It’s like a visual way of speaking, when you can’t find words to explain,” she told Career & Education.
It can also, Wilson said, be a haven for the abused, the imprisoned, the sick and the mentally ill to bring back stability and healing to their lives.
Her long-term vision is to start an art institution that will cater to people from the lower echelons of society.
“It will be for people who are vulnerable, for community development, therapy, education, advocacy; to bring about a deeper awareness, and in doing that, promote art so it can get more support from the government to take it from being a hobby to being a profession,” said Wilson, who describes her art pieces as having strong messages.
She has urged individuals with an interest in art to act on it.
“There are persons who are more naturally artistic than I am, but some persons sit down on their gift. I would say whatever little [talent] you have, you can make it work by working twice as hard [as someone else]. I would say I am hard-working,” said Wilson, who currently holds down a day job as a sales representative with Halls Investment in Montego Bay while indulging in her artwork at nights.