There is no “they.” This is but one of the many truths spoken by Vanessa German. To call her an artist would be such a dull illustration of her talents. Performance artist, virtuoso, storyteller, sculptor- her medium is her voice, the neighborhood, repurposed relics, paint and pure love. She is a community savior and dazzling truth teller. She is self-taught by life’s experiences, careful attention to history, and the example of her mother. She gives life to the stories of history forgotten and believes her ancestors are alive within her. She spreads love and creativity and possibility despite the tragedies and anger that exists in downtrodden places. “Why don’t “they” fix it?” she wonders. And the truth is: there is no “they.” But there is WE.
Vanessa stands alone on the stage. She doesn’t need props, for she is larger than life. Her voice booms. Her attire is colorful. Her hands constantly move. Clearly, she is artistic. Forceful. Rhythmic. Every word she speaks is rich, and her verbose vocabulary drips with savory spiritual hope in the midst of a troubled reality. On stage, in front of the TEDx camera, in front of audiences, in small media outlets, and now for a global business audience, Vanessa German shares stories of unfortunate reality. It’s a reality many live in the midst of, and often a reality many choose to ignore.
Homewood is a small town outside Pittsburgh. It’s a rough community and the violence is harsh. The great old Victorian houses of this rustbelt town were torn down long ago. There are vacant lots. There are gunshots, homicides, and rage. Vanessa lives in the middle of it. She’s seen the worst happen, and yet her profession is beauty- her mission is the truth. She says that we live in the reality of our political and economic situation and that poverty is intentional. People are waiting for someone to take care of it. When will “they” stop the violence? When will “they” provide prosperity? Then she reminds us: there is no THEY. There is only me, and we, and us.
Vanessa’s home is her studio. She paints on her front porch. There is a workshop in her basement. Her walls are filled with her paintings; the counters and floor space lined with huge figurines that are a compendium of peculiar bric-a-brac. Currently she’s obsessed with the Black Madonna and paints her everywhere- on scraps, on boxes, in phone books, on paper and canvas. There are dozens of these serene Madonnas, but it is her sculptures that she’s best known for. Vanessa collects artifacts and castoffs like rusty nails, copper bird figurines, tiny antique toys, teaspoons, spools, and the like, and fabricates powerful personages and calls them Contemporary Power Figures. Yes, they tell a story and have intended messages, but they are alive with narrative and have a multitude of interpretations.
When the creativity overflows, Vanessa spills out onto her porch. When she brought the art outside, it (and she) became a magnet for the neighborhood children. They would gather in her lawn and watch her work. Curious, they climbed her front fence, and got involved. Vanessa shared her leftover paint and together they decorated any object they could find- old scraps of wood, used food containers, any available surface. She knew that if they were a gang of artists on her front porch then maybe they wouldn’t be gang members later in life. This was a refuge from the violence. When there were gunshots and the children were scared, she helped them make sighs that said STOP SHOOTING- WE LOVE YOU. And they called themselves Love Front Porch.
When they grew out of the front porch, Vanessa refused to turn away the creative, curious children. She worked with the community and some neighbors to rent space in a house down the street. This would become ARThouse. When their small space in ARThouse was flooded with children and art, Vanessa went on a furious campaign to raise money and support, contributing her own earnings from artwork, and set about obtaining the entire building. Its future is still perilous, so Vanessa continues to fundraise, because there is no “they.”
“If my hands were anything other than hands…” begins Vanessa in an epic poem and tribute to a dear friend with cancer. She continues for nearly 10 minutes, seemingly without a breath, yet belting out the implicit message of our own power. In the course of this rap, no- intoxicating spoken song, her hands go from magic wands to shooting stars to a street corner jazz quintet. She calls it the Cirque du Soleil of her imagination. It’s the only way she has to heal her friend. Yet she shares with all of us that we live connected lives and hold within us the mastery of spirituality, of healing, of creativity and love. If we could quit seeing our hands as body parts, but as tools to do the work of love, then “they” could become “me” and porches could become ARThouses and love would replace shootings.
So in this rough and tumultuous environment, Vanessa brings beauty, hope, positive messages, and inspiration. In Homewood, Vanessa is forging a strengthened future, and outside the neighborhood she preaches the reality of the present. She says the children on her porch don’t understand what it’s like to be a working artist and that her home is her workplace. It’s evident to everyone but Vanessa that not just her home, but her community and this universe is her studio. Vanessa and her shooting star hands.
This article was originally published in Cake&Whiskey, February 5, 2015.