The Power of Art by Renée Watson
I have always loved words.
When I was a child, I competed in spelling bees and I’d spend hours writing random words over and over just because I liked the way the letters looked together. I enjoyed reading, speaking, and writing words so much so that when I was seven, I wrote a 21-page story and was eager to read the entire page-turner to my mother after dinner. In middle school I was often asked to read the scriptures at church and I looked forward to Easter Sunday when we recited speeches in front of the whole congregation. By the time I was in high school, I was reciting my own words at poetry readings.
Words came easy to me.
But then, shortly after high school, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and for the first time I was speechless. I couldn’t talk about it or journal about it. But there was so much I needed to process, so much I wanted to say. On one of the many sleepless nights I had, I got out of bed and flipped through a magazine. I don’t really know what made me rip out a page, but before I realized what I was doing, I had started to collect images that made me think of my mom, that captured the fear I had about losing her, the deep sadness I felt watching her suffer. That night I made a collage in my journal. The act of cutting and ripping, of making something cohesive out of a mess of scraps and clutter was empowering. I was in control of something while so much of my life was out of my control. Images, symbols, and colors spoke for me and I realized things about myself that I didn’t even know I felt, or remembered, or cared about.
This was the inspiration behind the artmaking scenes in Piecing Me Together. Jade has a hard time using words to express how she feels. She is holding so much inside and it is through collaging and painting that her voice is heard.
In the beginning of the novel, her collages are just for her. For Jade, creating and making is a way for her to cope with the happenings of the day. But when a girl the same age as Jade is assaulted by a police offer, Jade can no longer stay silent. There is a burning desire in her to share her voice, to speak out. She rallies her friends and through poetry, visual art, song, and social media they use their words and talents to bring healing to their community.
I believe in the power of art. I believe art can be a healing balm, a conduit for change. Artists—of all forms—are the people who put on record what is happening in the world. When there is tragedy or cause for celebration, when there is protest or cause for reflection and healing, we call on poets and writers, visual artists and musicians to usher in hope and restoration, to map our existence, to make visible the invisible.
There are many reasons why some of us feel speechless these days. Many reasons why it feels like our voices are insignificant and don’t matter. Jade often feels hopeless, too. When it comes to advocating for herself, she tells herself that if she speaks up, “nothing is going to change” and “no one will listen.” But she is wrong. Things do change in small and big ways—and most of all she changes.
I hope one of the take aways from Jade’s story is that we all have a voice and we need to use our voice—rather literal or artistic—to do something good in the world. I also hope that in Jade, we see a healthy way to process anger, disappointment, and grief. That we find safe spaces—journals, dance studios, basketball courts, libraries, music rooms, grandma’s kitchen—to release, regroup, and rebuild.
RENÉE WATSON is the acclaimed author of the teen novel, This Side of Home, and two picture books: Harlem’s Little Blackbird and A Place Where Hurricanes Happen, which was featured on NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Her middle grade novel, What Momma Left Me debuted as an ABA New Voices Pick. She lives in New York City. You can find her online at www.reneewatson.net. and on Twitter as @.