“Excuse me, prime minister!” A young woman raises her hand in a crowded room. In the backdrop of an elaborate spread of wallpaper, plush velvet seats and portraits of former leaders, Kirsty Latoya stands in number 10, Downing Street.
With the shaking of hands, Latoya introduces herself to Theresa May at the reception for this years World Mental Health Day. As aids fumble over their papers, failing to give her a proper introduction, the two figures discuss the importance of mental health alongside Latoya’s art, and after a short exchange, the politician and the artist part. “So now I have an art piece in 10 Downing Street. I think it’s a pretty big accomplishment.”
Back in South London where Latoya grew up, she at last falls into a lounge chair in the basement of London’s Old Vic Theatre. Browsing the extensive drinks menu of this venue that is already cluttered with scarf-wearing, Burberry carrying theatre-goers, she settles for an icy glass of apple juice.
As a self-taught artist, poet and performer, Latoya’s work is shaped by her experience of living with her disability. Kirsty is a master of digital art, a skill she began exploring from a young age: “I used to draw characters on Paint and write elaborate stories on Word.” Her home of South London clearly assisted this early desire to create art, and continues to do so in her career
“London is a very visually inspirational place...your mind is constantly sparked by things that you see.”
Far from the days of childish fiction, as an adult her work now acts as an outlet for her mental health issues. “I’ve suffered from depression from about 13 or 14 [years old], which I believe was due to having a genetic condition which I dealt with silently for a number of years.”
Marfan’s syndrome is a disorder that affects the body’s connective tissues. For Kirsty, this means her skeletal system, feet and eyes are all afflicted. After surgery to correct scoliosis which gave her a curve in her back during her teenage years, she had to learn to walk again.
“I have a lovely scar from the top of my neck to the bottom of my back...I was in hospital for my 18th birthday so that was fun.”
Children typically develop the disorder from their parents, and for Kirsty’s mother, the condition cost her her life. Scheduled for an operation to attend to the aneurysm on her heart, there was fatal miscommunication between hospital staff.
“Long story short, the hospital had been very slack and there wasn’t a date for the operation. We’d gone for an appointment the day before she died...I asked the doctor, ‘how serious is this?’ and he said, ‘she could drop down dead tomorrow.’”
Tragically, Kirsty’s mum passed away the following day.
Coupled with the loneliness of living with of her own disorder, Kirsty had now lost the only person who could understand what she was struggling with. “I suddenly felt myself going back into a hole I once was in, knowing that this was also something I suffer from and knowing that her fate might be mine one day.”
So Latoya turned to her art. Brandishing nothing but her iPad, she created a self-portrait that has now become the front cover of her upcoming book. “My art became a type of therapy for me after my mum passed away. I wasn’t being destructive to myself. It played a huge part in the grief process.”
Since the death of her mum, Kirsty has channeled all her energy into her work; gaining national press attention from the likes of BuzzFeed and ITV, meeting her inspiration Nick Sharratt and writing an art and poetry book.
But amongst the busyness of her career, Kirsty describes a profound moment she experienced with an admirer. Through a conversation on Instagram, a single mother spoke to Latoya at length about how her artwork echoed the woman’s own life as a carer of three, juggled mental health issues.
“She actually got the art piece tattooed on her arm. Which was the biggest compliment anyone could give me; that my art resonated so much with them that they get a permanent reminder of the power of it on their body.”
Kirsty Latoya’s book ‘Reflections of Me’ is out now.