Vanessa German is an American sculptor, painter, writer, activist, performer, and poet based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
Her sculpture often includes assembled statues of female figures created with their heads/ faces painted black and a wide range of attached objects flowing outward including fabric, keys, found objects, and toy weapons.
Her work is held in numerous permanent collections including the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and has been reviewed by Sculpture and discussed in The New York Times, O, The Oprah Magazine, and on NPR’s All Things Considered. Her art has been featured in a wide range of galleries, museums and traveling exhibits, including the 2012 “African American Art 1950-Present” touring exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution. She was a 2015 recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Grant.
The Connection 2017 experience took place in Pittsburgh, PA. To learn more about the event, visit http://connection17.manynet.org today.
In this inspirational #ConnectionPGH talk, citizen artist Vanessa German talks about how the power of art changed her life and changed her neighborhood, one shard of glass at a time.
I believe in the power of art.
I believe in the power of love, which means I believe in the power of us.
I believe in the power of people, thank you. I believe in the power of art, and I believe in the power of love, and I don’t always distinguish between the two of those things. I believe in the power of art, somebody tell me what you believe in the power of? You can just shout it out, family, all right, how many of y’all? I believe in the power of choosing my own family, too, sometimes. Somebody else? Tell me, what do you believe in the power of? God, God, okay, sorry, I thought she was dancing. How many of you believe in the power of meetings? How many of you believe in the power of the new pair of shoes?
I believe in the power of art, I believe in the power of love, which means I believe in the power of us. I believe in the power of people. I believe in the power of how we are all here together, we are earthlings, siblings, gravity bound oxygen, breathing creatures of carbon, star shine and dust. We are 99 to 99.9% genetically identical.
Turn to the person next to you, on the count of three, say, “hello, relative!” one, two, three, turn if somebody else’s… Say thank you, I thank you for doing the choreography. I see you back there in the back, uh, we are earthling siblings, we are all relatives, and I believe that the future belongs to the human beings who have the creativity and the courage to live inside of the truth of that fact.
Now, some of you are probably thinking that I’m just like I’m a romantic, that I’m a poet, and that I’m an idealist. And I am NOT an idealist, next slide, please.
I am an artist, but ideally I would like to not ever again have to watch somebody die on the street outside of my house. This is the neighborhood that I live in in Pittsburgh, and a quick picture of my neighborhood, sort of, on a national scale.
When the NRA did their National Conference in Pittsburgh years ago, MSNBC and the Rachel Maddow Show did a two-part series in my neighborhood called, “Homewood America’s Most Dangerous Neighborhood.” Now, of course, that’s not the only thing that happens in Homewood. My neighborhood is the poster child, where- that lives with the ricochet of racism, right, and racism is the first- well, I won’t even say it’s the first, but racism is really a crime against humanity, right, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that all human beings were created free and equal with dignity and rights. Everybody, repeat after me all human beings were created free and equal with dignity and rights.
And so, what happens when you don’t reckon with the violence and the lie and the greed and the hypocrisy of your story?
Is this- this is my neighborhood now, it’s also- next slide, please- this is the part where I make art, I call myself a citizen artist. Citizen artist is my title because I decided years ago that I was going to try to live with as much, like, muscular courage as I could on a daily basis to inhabit my humanity with love. And I just find love as creative, understanding, redemptive, transformative, goodwill, and I’ve got that definition from the speech that dr. Martin Luther King jr. Gave after Emmett Till was beaten, shot seven times, and tied to a 110 pound cotton gin fan, and thrown into a river for something that we know from Dr. Timothy Tyson’s book, he never even did, right?
And so, I want to inhabit as much of my humanity with love as possible, so I’m a citizen artist. I create sculptures, next slide, I’m a photographer, next slide. I know, right, it’s okay, I heard somebody give it like a little quiet woo. I do works on paper, and I’m a performer. This photograph is called “Gun With The Wind” and so, I make power figures, and I call them power figures, because I have tried to kill myself several times.
And the last time was as an adult, and I came to a place where I realized that I didn’t need gun, I didn’t need pills, I didn’t need to jump off a bridge to end my own life, that I could, if I wanted to, just sit in a chair and die.
One of my friends sons did that. She left for Jamaica, came back, and the boy had not moved from the chair he was in. And this is something that people used to talk about, actually an experience of enslaved people, it’s called “a fixed melancholy,” where you could just sit and die, that the despair could swallow you whole.
And I was in that place. I was really confused, like, “what does it mean to be alive?” why, why, is the world telling me that this is what is beautiful? That this is what is successful? That this is how I should be in relationship with my friends? And with my neighbors, and with my own self, and so, instead of killing myself, at the time, Lauryn Hill, she had dropped that Unplugged album, and in that album, she talked about treating her life scientifically, needing to do things very specifically, and intentionally within her own self.
And, at the same time, I was thinking about how I was gonna kill myself. I started to see all these bumper stickers everywhere that said things that were like, “there’s power in art” and “there’s power in love,” and I felt like it was like the 1960s in San Francisco or something, and I didn’t believe it, but I thought, “You know what? I’m gonna see if this is true.” so, every single day for six months, I gave myself free, full agency of heart, mind, and soul, all to do whatever I wanted to do. I stopped working for other people, and every day I would walk my dog, and I would pick up little objects and things from vacant lots and from around abandoned houses in my neighborhood. I would go down to my moldy Pittsburgh basement, and I would put things together, and I would do really meticulously, tedious things, like seed beating an entire face, one beat at a time, and I found that, when I was in the process of creating these figures, something happened to me.
Something came over me, so wholly and truly and completely, that I was changed by the process. I was transforming materials, but I was being transformed. This is old human technology. Everybody say, “I can access the technology of my soul!” so, human beings, if you ever look at photographs of the monks who are moving one grain of rice at a time, and doing this deeply therapeutic, meditative process that happened to me. There was complete concert and utter perfection of purpose between my physical body, the engineering part of my brain, and my heart, and my soul, and I was transformed. So when I say I believe in the power of art, I believe in the power of art because I realized that through this creative process, I was giving myself an atmosphere that was truly loving, creative, understanding, redemptive, transformative, goodwill.
I could contend with the despair that was wracking me. Uh, next slide, please. So I go around the country all the time, and I do all these workshops, and I ask people, “If you could make a work of art that had the power to do absolutely anything, what would it do?” Because as the last speaker said, we have to start thinking and feeling and living in the space of “what if?” What if you could make a work of art that has the power to do absolutely anything. It could defy the laws of gravity, it could it could skip past all the laws of physics and everything, and you could make something that did this thing, what would you put in the world?
Everyone has paper at their tables. Everyone has a pencil. I want you to answer this question, right now. If you could make a work of art that had the power to do absolutely anything, what would you make to put into the world? And when you have your, when you have your powerful work of art, idea, written down, would you please hold it up? And also, yo, do not- this is not that, this is not the zone for judgment, or checking in on yourself like somebody’s going to come around and look at your paper. Give yourself full breadth and authority to, to dream it.
What would you put in the world? See, the top of this paper says “mom.” It would make brownies that cure cancer. And I’m like, you ain’t never gonna be poor if you could do that! Thanks, you got it, hold it up, please, thank you. So we are, can I get the next slide? We are going to make one of the objects that I make in my work. I make these swaddle beads, which is also really old human technology. Everyone in this room at some point was swaddled. It’s what we do for babies to feel safe, and to feel protected, and to feel comfort. You have a yarn and fabric on your table. Everyone take a piece of fabric from that stack of fabric, and take a single piece of yarn, and when you have those three things, which is a piece of paper, a piece of fabric, and a piece of yarn, I need you to hold it up in the air.
And I’m gonna try not to move forward until I see everyone holding something up in the air. Merci beaucoup! There is somebody in the back who is like, “I had, I know exactly all the things I’m up to with my power of art, I’m changing the world, I’m putting somebody in the White House, yes, I’m gonna give everybody healthcare,” and she’s just like, “I’m not ready for the yarn, I’m still writing it down!” I feel you, all right, so we’re gonna move forward, because this beautiful human being tells me I have a minute and 30 seconds left, which, so, take that piece of paper, and fold it up as small as you can, and as you are touching that paper, I want you to call to your mind, do not say out loud, but I want you to call to the mind the name of someone who you were absolutely certain loves you.
Hold that name, repeat that name, there’s someone who loves you. You know they love you because you treated the like (blank) and they came back, and they held you, and they said, I know you got trauma, you got to work with it, but I ain’t leaving you. That person, though, Jesus says that to me every night, when we go shoe shopping, Jesus says, “Yes, I know.” So now, you’re gonna take that piece of fabric you have. I need you to take the piece of paper in one hand, and the piece of fabric in the other hand, yes, thank you, could you, my beautiful friend, right here in the pink, oh, you could come- you, come, you- come, come, do not, yes, l hold it up.
Hold it up, sister, hold it up. See, look a little scared, that’s okay. And so I want you to take the piece of paper, take the fabric, and put it over your hand so it completely covers your hand. Put the piece of paper in the center of it. And now, I want you to wrap that piece of paper up and swaddle it until it is in a bundle that is as tight as you can make it. And as you bundle, you try to make it tight and clean. Good, I mean, just so that it’s not- let me see, what’s your name? I love polka dots! So, you want to roll it so that it’s sort of clean, that it’s not- this isn’t trash, or swaddling, so it’s tight, and it’s a roll, and should end up with something that look like a little, itty, bitty taquito. So can you hold that up? You have just this piece of paper, thank you. What’s your name? You love Jesus! Has it good, hold it up in the air. So you’re going to wrap it, and then should- maybe it’ll be the size of your pointer finger. Just wrap it up tight, hold it up in the air, and if someone needs help, you all help each other. And if somebody needs help, you just say that you need help.
Cool. So you have that, that packet up in the air. How are you doing, love? You have beautiful fabric, you could do- just get it as tight, in a tight, little swaddle bundle. And now I’m going to have, you love Jesus? Come on, let’s go to, you love Jesus, Jesus for the pins. So you have this tight bundle, now you’re going to take this piece of yarn, and you’re gonna start on one end and you’re gonna swaddle it even more. Look at that picture. There. You’re just gonna wrap it, and wrap it, and wrap it, and if you’ve ever seen medicine packets, from like, the Native American people or any indigenous culture, the idea that you take that which is precious, that which you have dreamed, that’s what you have prayed on, that which is the medicine for your soul, and you wrap it, and you protect it, and you wear it close to your heart.
So this is the technology that we’re working with, the technology of your soul, that’s accessing that 0.1% of yourself that is pure human spark, and you’re gonna give yourself a little wrapped bundle. When you have that little wrap bundle, hold it up in the air. Can I get the next slide, please? I use these bundles on all of my work, and I ask people to send me the name of somebody, to send me a word that they want to be included in this prayer bead. Can I get the next slide, please?
I went from making singular discrete objects to making entire communities of sculpture, because I wanted to think, I wanted to think, I wanted to feel, and I wanted to invest that 0.1 percent of myself that is that spark, that, that human, the sort of the muscle of human magic, into these ideas. What’s possible if we treat our lives and our work strategically, and if we use love strategically? So I started, this is called, “I come to do violence to the lie.” can I get the next slide, please? So everyone has made a little swaddle-bead, can you hold them up? Does anyone need help? Good, so there is a chair outside in your Lobby, and at the end of this session, you’re going to take your prayer bead, and you’re going to go out to this chair, and you’re actually going to tie it to the chair. And this chair is going to become a living work of art that’s created by the power of your soul, and the power of your dream, and the power of your “what if?” that anyone, if you want to, can take a moment to sit yourself in that throne of dreams and be invigorated and be fuelled and be connected to that part of yourself that is that 0.1% of human magic.
This is my front porch in Homewood, and I told you I believe in the power of art, next slide please. I went, when I went from making those small discreet power figures to making big communities of power figures, I couldn’t make them in my Pittsburgh basement anymore. It was dank, and it was, we had to, actually, start breaking the sculptures to get them out. So I worked on my front porch, and people in my neighborhood would stand at the fence, and they would watch me make art. And the adults, because there was a bus stop, the adults would wait at my fence at the bus stop, and they would look at me, and they would be like, “that’s scary, that looked like voodoo, it’s that voodoo.” And they would watch me work, and the kids will watch me work, and they’d be like, “why are you so dirty?” and I, because I’m an artist, this is, you know, how you do. Artists should be, you wear it everywhere you go, and they would then get on my fence, they’d be like, “can I help you?” and I would say no, and I would say no, because I was that girl in the neighborhood, the one who would go out on trash night with the wagon and pick up the old chairs, and all grubby stuff. And there was this rumor going around the neighborhood that the woman that I lived with was not my sister or my cousin, and that I didn’t go to church. And so I would always, the kids, would be like, “can I come up there with you?” And I’d be like, “no, you can’t, it wouldn’t look right on the news!” so I would say no, but it was this little girl, one day, she got on my fence, and she was swinging on my fence, and she swung on my fence, and then she was like, “oops, Miss Vanessa, I landed in your front yard, right by this paintbrush.”
And she painted that pink spot on my porch. And so what happened is, I took out all the old art supplies, because my girlfriend, who was not my sister, or my cousin, gave me all her old set cleaning supplies. And I didn’t have a lot of money. That slate that she’s painting on came from the house that they tore down on the street. I used, whenever I could, I said, “here, work on this!’ next slide, please. And I would be making my own art, right, and I would go get myself a snack. Kids went on my porch, and they would be like, “Mmm it’s hot.” And I’d be like, oh man, I got to feed these kids. And so then, I was feeding the kids, but one interesting thing really happened, is that, um, I would have to explain, this is work, I have to make this sculpture. The reason my water runs in my house is because I make this stuff, so I need to make this. And they’d be like, “well, what are we supposed to do with all these art supplies?” And I would have to get real close to them and say, “listen, little homie, you need to make a decision, because I’m working right now, this isn’t a class, you’ve got to start with your favorite color to make something for school, I don’t know, but you need to make a decision.” and so kids would start working, they would see their friends get off the school bus, next slide, please. They see their friends come off the school bus, and they’d be like, “hey girl, you wanna make some art? Go get a smock, come on, make some art!” and then they would come with their friends on the porch, they’d push all the art supplies over to them, and then, the other kids would be like, “what am I supposed to do?” and I swear to you, the most amazing day at the art house, when I heard a little girl go, “you need to make a decision.” I said, so the kid, they would give this little speech, you need to make a decision, you got to start with your favorite color, you got something made for school, and I was like, wow, I don’t even have to replicate this message, it’s replicating itself. And I realized, then, the same thing that would happen when people gonna plate of good food in front of him, it would get quiet for like 20 or 30 minutes. I realized, oh, the same thing that happened to me in my basement is happening for them right now. And that atmosphere of love, it would take every one up. And we moved from my front porch to this house.
I got crisis custody of the kids who lived in this house. And oh, could you go back? Thank you. And this day at the art house was sort of an interesting day because a freak thing happened two days before, which is, two men living in the houses right next to each other were killed 15 minutes apart in situations that had nothing to do with each other. It was the very first time I heard one of my neighbors say, “I’m afraid to go outside.” And I thought about love. I have been reading bell hooks, and I have been really thinking, “how do you live with love?” How do you not get trapped in just using love like a slogan? How do you insert loving, creative understanding, redemptive, transformative, goodwill into all parts of your life, and do I have the courage to do that?
And what I realized, all I needed to do was keep sharing what I loved. And so, I invited all the people who are our facebook friends, like fans, like 4,000 or 5,000 people, to come to, what have, we called a “pot love dinner.” and I asked everybody to bring something that they loved. And this is what happened. That girl up there on the porch, she came from 45 minutes away. That baby is six days old, and people came, and we did the opposite of hiding, we made a spectacle of our joy. We made a spectacle of our human togetherness, and we changed, and we disrupted the momentum of fear. We disrupted the momentum of tremble that wanted to keep people in their houses, next slide, please.
There is no “they.” this is what I realized, next slide, there is no “they.” I was on my porch one day, I heard a gunfight, y’all, who ever heard a gunfight? You know, because you hear different sounds, pop, pop out. You hear the different calibers of guns, and I thought they should do something about this, they should stop this from happening. And I realize, there is no “they.” There will be no superhero to defend from the heavens and stop this from happening. If I have an idea, if I have something I want to do, I don’t need anybody else’s permission to do it. I can move with the deep agency of my own humanity.
And so, I started to print these subversive yard signs because it was primary election season. So right next to the mayor sign, there was like, “stop shooting, we love you” sign. And I thought, if it works once, if a kid had turned and left to go shoot up a playground, maybe he’ll see this sign, and they’ll instantly, he’ll instantly, see the light of his grandmother’s eyes. And instead of turning left, he’ll turn right, and he’ll go home. I thought, if it works once, it’s good. I’ve printed thousands of these signs. They were in Tahrir Square. They’ve been around the world. Then I thought, you know, still thinking about diseases of despair and thinking about how many of my friends are addicted, and fight so hard to get off the street, I thought, maybe people just need other signs. And so, next slide, I started making signs to say love. I make something to say, “you are so beautiful.” And I would post on Facebook, you can come pluck these like flowers from our yard. Next slide, please. So I went from the house that we borrow from the housing agency, I bought these two houses at the end of the street, and my neighbors were like, next slide, “please, don’t paint that that bright blue neon color,” and, next slide, but we did.
And we mosaic’ed to the entire front of the house, in glass, one shard at a time. A shard of glass looks worthless, most people want to throw it away, but when you put those shards together, you can create an entirely new picture.
There’s a bus stop, people, everybody who waited at the bus stop, helped with this house. Next slide, please, this is what it looks like now. Next slide, everybody, say, “us beautiful.” Next slide, “us fly.” Next slide, “us brave.” Next slide, take a deep breath in, let it out, next slide. “Us love.” I believe in the power of love, I believe that, through the power of this love, men of the most recalcitrant bent shall be transformed. Love is the only truly creative redemptive, transformative power in the universe. How will you live with courage and love today? Before I go, I want to tell you that I love you, I want you to know that I would rather die than to hate you, and I believe that through the power of love we shall all be transformed. Thanks, y’all.