Jerica D. Wortham is a poet and the director of the Greenwood Art Project, a citywide public art installation comprising 30-plus projects to commemorate the 1921 Tulsa race massacre in Oklahoma. She is also the founder and director of J’Parlé Art Group Inc.
I wasn’t trying to be revolutionary
I was just trying to say something
To share something
Be something more than that moment
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It was for me
I wasn’t trying to transform anyone’s life
But my own
But then it happened
I opened my mouth
And there it was
Now it took me a minute to call it this
I hadn’t at that point considered myself
I was just a little black girl with big ole hair
with something to say
Didn’t necessarily matter who listened
It needed to be said
And then it happened
Soul to soul
Breath to breath
And things started shifting
And doors started opening
And people started gathering
And they called it art
I think I like this art thing
Art be doing some thangs
Strangers became kindred in 3 minutes
Funny how that happens
Art seems to have a way of connecting folks
Reminding us that we aren’t alone in
That someone’s eyes can see in
a way that reminds you of home or
Shows you who you are in a
Holds a mirror to the right now
Summarizes the once was
Introduces the possibility of what
Punches us in the face
Makes us hot cocoa
Rubs our back
Tells us we’re beautiful
Reveals our shadows
Makes it hard to swallow
Pushes us to our limits
Then holds our hands alllll the way home
Art’s the quirky aunt that told the truth.
Zero regard to consequence its mission
To be a compass to our inner being
Celebrating the individual
While summoning the collective to
Consider what love looks like
What hope looks like …
A welcome escape
Art taps us on our shoulders when we
have forgotten what it’s like to dream
It’s that unruly best friend who
reminds you what living is like
A breath of fresh air
A fire uncontained
Deep as an ocean
Grounded as the tree
It isn’t always about trying to be revolutionary
It just has something to say
Something to share
Sometimes that paper, that canvas,
that brick wall, that clay just wants to be
something more than that moment
It isn’t necessarily about trying
to transform anyone’s life
It just was what it was
It is what it is
But then … It happens
Through public art we build our now and our future one photograph, one brushstroke, one word, one note, one sculpture, and one performance at a time. Public art is an aesthetically innovative way that communities beautify spaces and ensure that citizens’ voices are not silenced. It is a catalyst for healing, excavating from our very souls the parts of us we would typically keep to ourselves. It exposes who we really are. It’s both the calm and the storm keeping us from spontaneously combusting from this thing called life.
Public art is art of any medium that’s shared in public spaces. Whether sculpture, painting, poetry, dance, or theater performance, it has the ability to interject itself into our day-to-day and potentially mundane lives. In my very humble opinion, art and, specifically, public art, is everything!
One of my favorite things to do is to watch preschoolers create their own individual masterpieces and see the joy in their eyes when they share whatever it is they have made. Without a complete grasp of language, they are still able to connect with their audience and, without even realizing it, allow us to enter a space of sweet vulnerability. We get to know them—who they are, what and who is important to them—in but a matter of moments.
This doesn’t change as we move into adulthood. Artists share because we all need someone to see us or the issues that are important to us—to hear us, to know what’s deep within. We want someone to be inspired to ask and to have answers to the hard questions they may not have thought to ask. For this reason alone, public art has been breaking barriers by just being, and allowing us to be as well. It welcomes us to humanity. Its properties are informative and healing, so much so that it’s been incorporated by many professions and the mental health community.
In psychology, art therapy has been used as an effective tool to treat various mental health issues and to relieve stress and provide healing. The use of colors, shapes, sound, and eccentric flair has a way of taming the inner turmoil that people carry.
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So what happens when we take the healing properties of public art and incorporate them into community? One result is the Greenwood Art Project, a citywide public art project dedicated to helping a community heal from the 1921 race massacre that left Tulsa, Oklahoma, divided. An issue and a tragic event once swept under the rug now has an opportunity to help create one Tulsa—and one nation and one world beyond it. It’s using public art as a catalyst for meaningful dialogue around tough topics of race and economic displacement. It’s holding the mirror up to a community to show them who they were, who they are, and who they can become. It’s an opportunity for people to reflect and process.
Community member D’Marria Monday provides an example of this in an email she recently sent describing her experience when viewing The American Dream, one of our installations created by Sarah Ahmad:
I stumbled along the path of the American Dream the other day. Nature centers me when I’m feeling lost and need to look within to find my way. I wandered along the path, still uncertain if I was going the right direction, not knowing what would lie ahead. Then, the beautiful radiance of the marigold flowers would renew my hope that I was going the right way.
Finally, I arrived at the teaching hut. A handmade woven tent with the pictures of devastation on the pattern inside. I ventured inside in the heat of the day. It was almost as if I could feel the fire as I was enveloped in the heat. I left feeling inspired by the fire of my ancestors’ blood pumping through my body. It was in this moment that I walked out with a renewed hope of resilience as I ventured along a new path. A hope that we can rebuild from the flames. Our ancestors experienced loss and devastation; just like the Phoenix, they rose from the flames. Our ancestors’ spirit of resiliency lies within.
As I continued the journey back, still lost at times, I was unsure if I would make it back okay. It was during these times that I was able to look within and feel inspired by the ancestors as a guide that I would make it back okay. That served to renew my purpose, direction and most of all HOPE. HOPE is Healing Our Post-Traumatic Experiences. I am thankful to the Greenwood Art Project for creating this experience in tribute to our ancestors. We’re able to look back and be inspired to move forward!
This is why it’s important to take art out of traditional spaces and make it accessible to everyone. Art’s healing properties are effective only if the general public is granted access. Art is not an antidote reserved for the affluent of a community.
A version of this article appears in the December 2021/January 2022 of ARTnews, under the title “Hold Our Hands Alllll the Way Home.”