Sculptor and artist Vanessa German lives in one of the most unsavory neighborhoods in America. In 2011, The Rachel Maddow Show named Homewood in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, the most dangerous for its history of drugs, violence, and poverty.
But German must’ve missed the memo. Instead of fleeing the impoverished area, Vanessa embraced it. Her work involves bringing people together and reversing the destructive patterns that tore the community apart.
We’ll look at the powerful and transcendent artwork created by Vanessa German and see the results of her labor.
Who Is Vanessa German?
Born in 1976 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, German’s mother raised an artist almost accidentally. German tells the story of how she and her five siblings regularly visited quilt shops with their mother. A quilter, Vanessa’s mom was always on the hunt for a bargain, even to the point of dumpster diving. So the family searched for the perfect fabric all over Los Angeles, where German grew up.
However, young Vanessa looked past the strangeness of the behavior and saw what mattered. She grew to love unique materials. Her work, assemblages of doll parts, antique tins, cowrie shells, African beads, and household objects, mines the history of her neighborhood. Vanessa looks around her for things to use in new pieces, picking up objects that call to her.
In 2011, German moved her studio out of her house and onto her front porch in Homewood. Neighborhood children stopped by in awe of the objects the artist created. They came by daily and also started working alongside German, and she welcomed them. Her porch became Love Front Porch, a community gathering spot for collective healing.
In recent years her work reached new heights, and she won the prestigious Heinz Award for the Arts in 2022. A poet, photographer, community organizer, and sculptor, German’s star hasn’t nearly reached its peak.
Where Does Vanessa German Find Inspiration?
German’s inspiration comes from the objects she finds around her neighborhood. As a child, she watched her mother lovingly caress fabric rescued from the trash as though it spoke to her. Walking around Homewood, German picks up objects she finds interesting and includes them in her work. She keeps an eye out for items that carry the collective history of her neighborhood that also resonate with her themes.
The big ideas behind her creations center around communal healing. Black Americans have a brutal history, and her performances, sculptures, rituals, and poetry all seek to heal. The artist seeks out what she calls the “frequency of yes” in her work. Vanessa also mentions that her inspiration comes from beyond herself.
What Mediums Does Vanessa German Work With?
Vanessa German’s sculptures are mostly made of found objects and doll parts. She doesn’t restrict herself to one medium, though. She’s known as a poet and photographer as well as a sculptor. Vanessa calls her sculptures “power figures” that break through the multi-generational oppression of the African American experience.
German creates magical, timeless objects. Reminiscent of religious icons, Vanessa’s sculptures reclaim objects that represent the oppression of African Americans. Inspired by Congolese Nkisi figures, she uses everything from bottle caps to tea cups to connect her work to the African American experience.
Evocative Pieces by Vanessa German
Vanessa German’s work is full of expression, often including multiple layers of meaning. She’s deeply rooted in community and also believes art is transformative and healing. The following pieces are some of our favorites.
Part of her debut exhibition at the Kamsin Gallery in New York City, Sad Rapper, is an assemblage of blue denim, tar, and wood. Standing six and a half feet tall, the figure is imposing. Atop the red and white stripes of the American flag, the power figure speaks to the hidden truth of rappers.
In LA in the 1980s, rappers could be bad, but they couldn’t be sad. They couldn’t mourn the loss of their communities to drugs. Defined, instead, by bravado and hatred, the rappers she grew up with masked their emotions. This figure allows the sadness to show through. “It’s ok, just go’on ahead and be broken for a little while,” she writes in the poem accompanying the piece.
Reproduction confronts viewers with the history of racism and exploitation of African Americans. A three-headed, three-breasted figure towers over a tiny white showman. The sculpted figurine looks like a circus freak with amputated arms and exposed breasts. German uses the stereotypes of Jim Crow-era Black characters to challenge viewers to see their own past.
On the reverse side of the sculpture, German’s message to viewers is clear. “Kiss my ass…yes, you,” in large, glittery letters. Additionally, in the center of the message is a mirror.
THE BEAST is a revelation and celebration of the Black female form. In fact, German writes about exposing her own darkness in this sculpture. Painted pitch black with red and white circles polka-dotted all over, the outsized arms shine with gold tinsel.
Instead of a head and face, German used glass and plastic bottles. The piece also exposes the dark places the artist sees in herself and, in the end, shows the light inside.
Where Can I See Some of Vanessa German’s Art?
Vanessa German’s work exists in public and private collections. Her most recent exhibition closed in October 2022 at the Kamsin Gallery in New York City. However, you can still see her work in person and online.
Several museums hold German’s work in their permanent collections. However, before you go, call ahead to make sure her work is on exhibit.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas, celebrates American art. One hundred twenty acres of land, crisscrossed by trails and outdoor installations, house five centuries of history. Entry is free and open to the public. The museum holds three of German’s sculptures in its collection.
American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, houses a massive collection of visionary artwork by self-taught artists. The building is covered in mosaics created by at-risk youth, much like German’s own ARTHouse. You can also view several of German’s sculptures in the museum’s collection.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, exhibits work from all of human history. Since 1933, the museum brought art from around the world to the people of Kansas City, intending to uplift and educate them. There are over 42,000 pieces included in the museum. In addition, the museum holds German’s painting Glory in its collection.
Like most contemporary artists, Vanessa German’s Instagram is the best place to see her work online. The artist also writes poetic descriptions of what she posts, giving insight into the creative impulse. In addition, her account celebrates her sculptures, personal life and achievements, and influential Black creators.
From the Muse: Visit Vanessa German’s Instagram page to view her impressive collection of artwork.
Vanessa German’s ARTHouse
In the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, German bought a house and expanded the Love Front Porch concept. Decorated with mosaics and paintings by local children, German’s home is an installation of hope and peace. It’s also a gathering place for her community and offers art classes for women and children in a safe space.
Out of necessity, what started as an outdoor studio became a place where kids could paint, work with clay, get a snack, and tap into their creativity. Love Front Porch brings the art German creates inside out to the public. And this community surely needs a connection to their inner selves after years of violence and neglect.
In 2021, a fire severely damaged the home, and much of the work was lost. However, construction is underway to restore ARTHouse to its former glory.
Connecting To a Troubled Community
Vanessa German’s sculptures turn trash into profound meditations on the Black experience. While they can be heartbreaking, jarring, confrontational, and eerily beautiful, her pieces also challenge viewers. Her community activism is admirable, and her sculptures are remarkable. German continues to create work that speaks to the current moment. Hers is a voice we should all stop and listen to.
Do you have a favorite Vanessa German piece? Let us know about it in the comments below.
Outside Folk Gallery
You can explore folk, street, and outsider art in our personal collection at Outside Folk Art. We’re celebrating these creatives and giving voice to rising black, Native, immigrant, and working mother artisans.
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