By third-year Jessen O’Brien and Chelsie Sluyk, MAPH’10
Photo by Jason Smith

To me there is no clearer message that the University supports the arts than funding an artist’s work directly.”
—Heidi Coleman
Director, University Theater

Eleven years ago, a chance encounter in her native Trinidad changed Adama Wiltshire’s life.

“My mom used to sell insurance,” Wiltshire says. “So one day I went with her to try to sell insurance to some guy I didn’t know. His door was wide open, and the first thing I saw was this huge mural-style painting, and I was like, ‘Oh my god.’ My jaw just dropped.”

Wiltshire, AB’10, had walked into the home of Leroy Clarke, one of her country’s most famous artists. Before long, Clarke took Wiltshire under his wing, teaching her about art and poetry. Since then, 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 a commemorative piece about her homeland for an NGO in Norway.

In 2009, Wiltshire received an Arts Council Summer Fellowship, one of 15 campus arts grants provided by the Arts Council each year. This year’s fellows received $1,500 to explore independent, creative projects—ranging from non-fiction writing to animated short films, a musical score for a circus, and a stage adaptation of Chinese short stories.

“Many times I have heard from artists, ‘If only I had time to develop …’ I know that almost all of us have a novel or screenplay or composition that we write as we fall asleep at night. How often do we have space and time to realize these dreamings?” says Heidi Coleman, Director of University Theater. “To me there is no clearer message that the University supports the arts than funding an artist’s work directly.”

The distinctive program is less focused on what Logan Arts Center Director Bill Michel calls “organized artistic experience”—such as structured events or curricular development—and more on “the student as individual artist.”

“There are those students for whom it is not a major, but they are committed art makers,” Michel says, “and those who want to have the kind of arts experience that grows out of the education that Chicago offers.”

“The Women of the L”

For Wiltshire, the summer of 2009 was spent at bus stops and train stations photographing Chicago women and transforming them through painting for a project called “The Women of the L.”

Inspired by her political science coursework, Wiltshire became interested in how public services impact the populations they serve.

“For whatever reason, even on the train people consciously separate themselves,” Wiltshire says. “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?”

Wiltshire’s exuberant style still shows Clarke’s influence, she says.

“He showed me not to be afraid of a billion colors, shapes, lines and dots,” Wiltshire says. “Even now my colors are not what they should be. It’s never the color of that person’s skin. It’s always a hundred different colors within that to make up what I think that person’s skin color should be.”

When choosing subjects, Wiltshire is drawn both to strangers and friends. She paints people because of their personalities when an exaggerated feature grabs her attention—such as lips, eyes, limbs, sagging skin, color discolorations, or even intensity of a stare.

“When I’m painting, I try to look for the conflicting sides of each person,” she says.

“I Can Do That Through Art”

For Wiltshire, who studied history and political science, an important part of her art is translating her academic and personal experiences into something more tangible.

“How do we take the skills we are learning on a day-to-day basis in the classroom, think about it again, and translate that into a more practical sense? For me personally, I can do that through art.”

Wiltshire plans to work on several new pieces that revolve around her experience at UChicago. “I kind of wanted to 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,” says Wiltshire.

Although she finds art to be an important tool for self-discovery and analysis, painting serves another important function in Wiltshire’s life.

“It relaxes me,” she says. “It’s the one thing I could do every single day for 24 hours without any sleep.”

Originally published on August 2, 2010.