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Artist Vanessa German's Homewood 'ArtHouse' Looks To Rebuild After Fire

Courtesy of Vanessa German
Firefighters battled a blaze at Homewood's ArtHouse early Sunday.

Nationally known artist Vanessa German has vowed to rebuild the ArtHouse, the grassroots community center she founded in Homewood that was extensively damaged in a fire this past Sunday.

Vanessa German poses with some of her artwork.

No one was injured in the blaze, which began in the early morning hours when an untended candle set a shower curtain on fire in a second-floor bathroom. An artist staying in the three-story house on Hamilton Avenue escaped uninjured, said German, who owns the ArtHouse and lives in the building next door.

Likewise escaping damage was a trove of German’s own artwork stored in the ArtHouse, which she valued at $300,000 or more.

German said she bought the building housing the ArtHouse about eight years ago. It has since served as a free gathering place, event space, and arts studio for adults and children in the neighborhood, which is long troubled by poverty and gun violence.

The building, its façade adorned with joyful mosaics, is a local landmark. German calls the center “a community citizen” whose grounds include a small outdoor stage and bleachers for live performances, and room for events like petting zoos. The building has also hosted evening writing programs, she said.

During the pandemic, the ArtHouse no longer hosted indoor programming except for the artist residency, she said. Instead, German assembled art kits and left them on a table on the building’s porch for neighbors to take for free, announcing the kits on social media.

German’s community work in the neighborhood predates the ArtHouse. About a decade ago, the porch of a different neighborhood building became Love Front Porch, where she hosted art-making by children.

German's own sculptures, including her signature “power figures” – sculpted infants adorned with found objects – have been exhibited all over Pittsburgh and around the U.S. and have drawn widespread media attention. Her work frequently confronts the legacy of racism and gun violence. She is also an accomplished spoken-word performer. In 2018, she won the Don Tyson Prize, a prestigious national award for visual artists.

German said she had been unable to purchase insurance for the ArtHouse building. Insurers told her the 120-year-old wood-frame structure was not worth its own replacement cost, she said.

Reached by phone this week, German praised the Pittsburgh firefighters who salvaged her artwork stored in the house, much of it the product of her own artist residency. “I want people to know that the firemen took moving the artwork and protecting it so seriously,” she said.

She said fire officials told her that despite the extensive water and fire damage – and the hole firefighters cut in the ArtHouse’s metal roof – the building remains structurally sound. She spoke optimistically of restoring it.

“This really gives us an opportunity to be forward-thinking about the space and to rebuild it with those ideas of continuing to be a legacy space for Homewood,” she said. She said the building will need all new electrical wiring and plumbing, for starters, and possibly a new roof.

German launched a GoFundMe campaign for $75,000.As of Thursday, it was already more than halfway to that goal.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: