Creating a voice for the Culturally Overlooked

An upcoming illustrator from the UK, Kirsty Latoya, talks about how art has helped her battle depression while at the same time acted as a vent for her expressive self

LILA: Thank you Kirsty for agreeing to participate in this issue of Inter-Actions. We have learnt that your engagement with art started as a process of therapy for you, to address issues of mental health that you have been facing for many years. In one of your artworks, there is a message inscribed on a painter’s hand saying ‘art never comes from happiness.’ Could you tell us a little more about this work and the message in it? What are your thoughts on the common conception of art thriving in spaces of pain and suffering?

KL: Art vs Emotion is a piece created to challenge people’s perceptions of the creation of art, the message ‘Art never comes from happiness’ is more of a question than statement. For me, my best art came from sadness, as is the case for a large number of creative, singers, rappers, artists etc. My belief is that the best art is created in the heights of emotion because that’s when the creator is most passionate. An example of this is‘Mood’, which is my most known pieces, as well as my debut book cover was inspired by sadness. It was my depression that led me to create this and pieces like ‘Drowning in Emotions’. My feelings at the time led me to pick up my iPad and create so I could get out my negativity. Pain and suffering isn’t all about doom and gloom there is room to navigate your feelings and thrive in that space.

LILA: One of the key themes in your work is the experience of depression and anxiety as a black woman. Can you tell us more about this, how is the experience of these conditions culturally different in your community? Do you see the stigma going away with time? What are the things that have helped you within your community, and what more would you like to see happen?

KL: Culturally in African and Caribbean communities, mental health problems are not held in as high regard as western society. It’s often dismissed and played down to having a ‘bad day’ or something similar. Growing up with this mindset can be challenging because sometimes the people from these communities start to suffer in silence because of the stigma. I feel education and more visibility on the subject is helping lift the stigma bit by bit but we’re still a long way to go. The older generations need to be worked with more so they stop passing down negative connotations around mental health – I think this will help the younger generations in the future.

Within my community there are so much mental health awareness events where safe spaces are created for people to share. I’ve been to panel discussions, interactive events, art therapy workshops and more, there’s so much to get involved in. The rise in the number of such events isa great thing and I’d like to see them keep growing to higher scales in 2019. These could be implemented through stronger support systems for the organisers and better planning as a starting point. I’d like to see more funding go to small independent groups wanting to create these safe spaces because they are so important.

LILA: You’ve experienced two different kinds of treatments for depression – counselling and art therapy. Can you reflect on the two and compare your experiences of both? Are they very different from one another? What kind of insight do you think these experiences have given you into dealing with and treating poor mental health?

KL: Counselling was a great help.I went into it not believing it would benefit me, but I was so wrong. Being able to talk through my issues vocally was a great tool for me as I’m very expressive. Art therapy was different but personally just as effective, as I was able to put myself in a creative space in my head and block everything negative out. Drawing made me less angry and depressed because I was executing a level of control over it – something I felt like I had lost at the time. Everyone communicates differently, so when treating poor mental health, it is up to the individual to decide and realise what type of therapy they think will work best. Therapy isn’t sitting on a sofa crying into tissues while a middle-aged man nods and tells you he understands! There’s so many levels to it which are there to be explored – art therapy, sports therapy, music therapy, counselling, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy etc.

LILA: It is interesting that you use your fingers to draw on digital devices, which is a curious method bringing together the analogue and the digital. Could you tell us some more about your practice? Why did you decide to adopt this methodology and how has it changed the way you engage with art, especially considering you also draw on non-digital mediums?

KL: When I first taught myself digital art I was drawing on my phone using a cheap stylus but when I would go to work I kept forgetting the stylus at home. As a last resort I started using my finger and when I upgraded to an iPad the method stuck. I love the contrast of the analogue and the digital as sometimes it can feel a bit distant create something on a screen. I love my method because I can manipulate the art in any way possible and I love the freedom it gives me. I still draw traditionally from time to time and I’m thinking about taking up painting again.

LILA: One of the concerns that we at LILA have been thinking about is expanding the scope of technology in spaces of arts and culture. While digital technology has enabled us to do many things we previously couldn’t, it has also standardised some aspects one could previously play around with. As a member of the community of artists and creators that are always looking to innovate, what is your assessment of digital technology and its future in art?

KL: Digital Technology is definitely the future and I believe it holds an important place in the art world. A few decades ago we weren’t creating art on computers, it was strictly created in the traditional form. Now we have the likes of Photoshop, Illustrator and other programs especially for creatives. The recent developments have created so many jobs and opportunities for people, which is brilliant, so hopefully even more will be created in the future. It’s hard to predict the future of digital technology because it evolves so fast, but the improvements we’re now seeing is only the beginning – technology is going to have a huge impact on the arts.

LILA: You have recently released a book titled ‘Reflections of me’. Can you tell us more about this? What is the inspiration and intention of the book?

KL: The book was inspired by the beauty and pain of the world.It’s an art and poetry book, which centres around the important themes of mental heath, identity, love, womanhood and masculinity. In Reflections of Me I also discuss my personal story and journey of creating the book. I’m quite transparent and open about my own mental health struggles and use my words and art to get this across. The book aims to provoke thoughts and inspire the readers.

LILA: You have mentioned earlier that you began drawing as therapy for yourself and didn’t realise how many people would connect and get inspiration from it. Has this knowledge changed your approach to art in any way? What does art mean to you now, in light of this knowledge?

KL: It has changed my approach in some way because now I know the importance my art holds to other people.I still create art for me, but now I also do it for everyone like me, the people struggling with no voice. It has taken on a greater meaning knowing that it connects on a deeper level to some. I just want to share it with the world.

LILA: Are there any specific influences that have inspired your artwork? Who are they, and how have they influenced you?

KL: Nick Sharratt is a big inspiration of mine in terms of artistry. He is an illustrator who I looked up to as a child because I saw he was doing what I wanted to do. A couple of months ago I got the opportunity to meet him and talk to him about my art and new book – he now owns a copy and I’m so happy that it’s come full circle. Seeing him live his dreams in the creative arts (and still do it 2 decades later) gave me such a rush, I hope I can have a career even half as successful as him.

It terms of my art pieces I have many influences – from clothing brands to photographers to designers. There’s so much talent out there and it pushes me to work harder.

LILA: How do you connect with the history of the arts, in your own space, in the world around? Which direction do you position yourself as an artist and what is the relevance of that direction for the arts and the world at large?

KL: The history of the arts can teach us a lot but the future is what’s more important to changing mindsets, challenging stereotypes and helping mould a more inclusive society. I’m an artist, but also an activist who discusses important issues like mental health, identity, disability, bereavement and self love. Moving forward I want to be in a space where I’m freely able to share my creations and talk about the surrounding themes, hopefully helping some kind of social change come about. I want to be an artist people remember for years to come.

LILA: Are there any contemporaries you connect with on this front? Is there a network of artists working on such issues? Can an individual’s work alone create enough impact?

KL: There are some artists working to bring awareness to some of these issues but I haven’t found a network that supports this yet. I’d be very interested to get involved with other artists because I believe we can be stronger and have a bigger voice when working together to create an impact.

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