Citizen artist and performer Vanessa German brought her works from the streets of Pittsburgh to the Wellin Museum’s Innovative Approaches, Honored Traditions exhibit on Sept. 9, celebrating the museum’s 5th anniversary. She performed spoken word poetry and presented the story behind her sculptures, which will be part of the museum’s permanent collection.
German began her presentation by expressing her belief in the power of love: a concept to her that is “creative, understanding, redemptive, transformative good-will.” She identified herself as specifically a citizen artist because of her desire to inhabit creatively through art, which means that she is “inhabiting as much of [her] citizenship as possible with love.”
As a self-taught artist, German remembered struggling with the emotional turmoil and conflict that came with living in a house with no running water, witnessing frequent deaths in her neighborhood, and being personally confused with her individual worth in society. In the midst of this struggle, she would walk her dog and be interested by the objects around her, picking up keys and bottle caps off the ground to use for her sculptures.
“I could make my own medicine in these objects. I could attend to all that was wrestling in myself both intellectually and spiritually in the process of making objects,” German said. “It’s something that is ancient; it’s something that is written about and story-told in indigenous cultures that you can lose yourself in this repetitive activity.”
German would sit on her porch to create her work, which is usually assembled with beads, seashells, doll parts and other common objects. Children would ask her questions about what she was doing and why, and she would frequently offer small painting projects and teach them to make their own decisions with art. The project transformed into the Love Front Porch and the ARThouse, which German founded to enlighten her community by guiding the creation of art.
Many of German’s works are focused on “mining the spectrum of narratives on the black body on this land” and giving power to especially black narratives. She hopes, however, that art can be universally used as a way of self-healing and understanding. In her performance of spoken word poetry, she alluded to the importance of expressing self-narratives by being honest with yourself and with others.
“If you don’t feel like saying nice things and being polite and making everyone comfortable with your rage, then don’t,” German said. “You feel free to tell your truth, and then tell your story, and then retell your story, then restore with the story - and then rise.”