In honor of Women’s History Month, each week we are profiling some of the women artists in Crystal Bridges’ collection. This week we look at Vanessa German: artist, performer, activist, poet, and force of nature. German creates elaborate and fantastical sculptures of African American figures she has crafted from baby dolls, shells, found objects, paint, wood, handmade “beads” of fabric wrapped around bits of paper… whatever she sees that speaks to her. She refers to these works as “power figures,” and considers them guardians, as well as powerful statements about oppression, race relations, violence, and poverty. Her work was featured in the State of the Art exhibition at Crystal Bridges and is now on tour in two State of the Art exhibitions on the road.
German lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in a neighborhood called Homewood. In 2011, MSNBC’s The Rachel Maddow Show referred to Homewood as “the most dangerous neighborhood in America” for its history of violence, poverty, and drugs. But to Vanessa German it is a community of people in need of protection, love, and a voice. “To me, Homewood is one of the most inspiring places in the world,” she writes on her web page. “I’ve seen acts of love and bravery here that would leave you slack-jawed and damp-eyed with awe.”
Her home there, which is referred to as Art House, has become a center for art and community: a place whose doors are always open to the neighborhood children who come every day to make art, have a snack, and bask in the warmth of her presence. Their parents come too, and members of the community and the city who drop by to bring donations of supplies or food, sit around and socialize while the kids make art, or make art of their own. The story of how Art House came to be is a remarkable one.
Before Vanessa German acquired the current Art House, she lived in another row house house not far away. She would often work on her sculptures on the front porch where she could spread out with her tools and materials and enjoy the fresh air.
“I would paint and build things and [the neighborhood] kids would say ‘What are you doing?’ I want to do that,’” German said. “So I pulled out all this old paint and paintbrushes, and I would work and they would work too.”
As the word spread and more and more children came to make art, German began to refer to her porch as the “Love Front Porch,” a place where everyone was safe and valued. “I realized that all I was doing was sharing the thing that I loved and that by sharing what I loved I was sharing love,” she said.
When a house down the street became empty, German asked the president of the housing authority if she and the children could use the house for art-making. During their meeting—which took place on German’s front porch—the neighborhood kids gathered around, eager to make art. Although German’s proposal was turned down, the gaggle of young artists on her porch made an impression. The housing authority president called her a few days later.
“She said she couldn’t stop thinking about how just because we were sitting on the porch, all this activity happened, and she said she would work out a way to let us use the house,” German said.
Over the next two years, the Art House drew an increasing number of kids and their parents who came to make art, or just to sit and socialize. Neighbors regularly supplied snacks for the kids, many of whose parents can’t always afford to feed them. The Art House became a social center for the neighborhood.
“I live in a neighborhood where they tear down a lot of houses,” German said. “So to have a house that is being used and taken care of—with vision and with hope and with purpose—is really something that makes people proud.”
In 2014, using crowd-sourced funds, along with a chunk of her own money earned through the sale of her art, German purchased a house on her block to provide the Art House with a permanent home. Since then, the neighborhood children have been helping German to decorate the house in colorful and welcoming mosaics, and now Art House appears like a joyful shout of welcome and creativity in the midst of this troubled area.
“It’s hard to put into words what it means for each and every person,” German continued. “But I know how much it means to the kids when they come. The kids know what they want to create: so that means they have taken this space—and what happens inside of it—home with them, and they’re thinking about it and imagining and dreaming. And I live in a place where there’s not a lot of dreaming going on. I can’t speak to what it means and what it does for everybody else. But I know that I’ve seen a lot of things happen in the house, and I don’t know where else those things would have happened if the house wasn’t there.”