Fisherman finds healing in art from depression diagnosis
After receiving a psychiatric diagnosis of depression some 10 years ago, Herman ‘Tommy’ Wong searched for a number of ways that he could cope with his mental illness; but it wasn’t until he picked up a paintbrush in 2018 that he truly felt an emotional release.
Growing up, life was very challenging for Wong, particularly because he was raised apart from his parents and was taken in by his grandmother.
The St Elizabeth native never had the privilege of knowing his father, because he died while he was still a baby, and his mother would then emigrate to the United Kingdom, leaving him behind.
Wong began working as a fisherman at the age of 12, after completing primary school, a job he still holds today.
In a recent Gleaner interview, the 64-year-old said that after some of his relatives and friends wronged him over the years, it has been difficult to find and connect with genuine people.
“We short of love in Jamaica,” he said, noting that though he has four sisters and a brother, they were not close.
Despite things being increasing difficult for Wong after the diagnosis, he remained driven to be a better father to his three daughters, Julia, Oshin and Miriam.
Julia, his first born, told The Gleaner that she grew up witnessing her father “mark up the walls”, a practice she did not deem as artistic work back then.
Not unfamiliar with his past, she recalled that her father frequently told stories of the circumstances in which he was raised and that as she grew older, she came to appreciate these tales as Wong saved and gave all of his money to his wife of 35 years, Carine, who would then pool the funds to pay for their children’s college education.
“He has always spoken about his childhood and how difficult [it] was. And I always knew that there were points in his life where he would get very secluded [and] would take himself away, not wanting to see anybody sometimes, not wanting to talk to anybody,” she said.
At other times, she added, her father had gone without food because his worries would keep him up at night.
But, despite these realities, growing up with him has been a wonderful experience, she said, as the hardships he faced as a child motivated him to become a better parent, showing his children much more love and care than he had ever received.
“I wouldn’t ask for a better father, and I am where I’m at because of him,” she said.
Wong remembered that as a young boy, his hand couldn’t keep still, and that he would experiment with drawing but didn’t take it seriously at the time.
But after his wife, an early-childhood educator, gave him construction paper, crayons, and pencils in an effort to divert his attention from the depressive episodes he would experience, he would use them to draw portraits, and practise calligraphy by writing his name on walls.
However, the moment his life changed was when he started using paint. Though Wong had no professional training in the arts, but instead, taught himself how to paint, from that point on he would go on to create up to four pieces per day.
His work would then be gifted to his children or offered for sale.
Living along Great Bay Road, overlooking Treasure Beach, Wong is fascinated with nature and enjoys painting landscapes.
In addition, he occasionally creates still-life artwork and abstract paintings, and has also travelled to Honduras and the Cayman Islands to find the perfect locales to paint and take back home.
“Human being really failed me in life, so maybe that’s why I see nature as the only way out to have peace of mind,” he said, recalling that painting saved him from committing suicide.
He stated that it was crucial for him to find this outlet for his feelings and emotions ,since when he wasn’t painting his “brain was all over the place”.
Painting, he said, was his medicine.
“Discrimination, sometime it pulls you down, but sometimes it uplifts you,” he said. He continued that the lack of love in Jamaica also contributed to depression in society.
Wong encourages anyone who struggles with depression or any other mental illness to find something they enjoy and devote their time and effort to it.
“Daddy has made us proud ... he’s not free from depression, but he is far better than he was,” said Julia.
She continued that both her and her sisters poured love into him endlessly despite the physical distance between them, due to him residing in rural St Elizabeth and them elsewhere.
Wong, with the aid of his children, aspires to host an art exhibition to showcase his work in 2023.
Julia explained that he came up with this idea on his own, and that it indicates to her and the rest of the family that he has progressed, since he was very reserved and hid himself from the outside world.