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Pittsburgh artist vanessa german wins prestigious national award

Vanessa German
Joshua Franzos
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Vanessa German poses with some of her sculptures.

Over the past decade or so, vanessa german has become one of Pittsburgh’s best-known artists. She’s also earned a national profile, with exhibitions and accolades from around the country for her sculptures, spoken-word performances, and activism.

She added to that resume today with one of her biggest prizes yet, as one of two artists to receive this year’s Heinz Awards for the Arts from the Heinz Family Foundation. The honor comes with an unrestricted cash grant of $250,000.

The prize was a complete surprise to german, who learned of it in a phone call a couple of weeks ago. At first, in fact, she mistakenly thought the call was from the Heinz Endowments, a separate (though also Pittsburgh-based) organization for whom she’s done project work over the years.

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But this national award put german in rarefied company, including that of her fellow winning artist, California-based experimental filmmaker and interdisciplinary artist Cauleen Smith. (The awards also included prizes for innovators in the fields of economics and the environment.)

German said she is humbled by the honor.

“I feel like I just sort of made up a life that I could fit in, that I could fall in love in, that I could share love in,” she said in a phone interview. “And that life brought me to a place where other people experience my work in a way that is respected and honored."

“Vanessa is honored for her generosity as an artist and for her important, socially relevant work, in which she elevates art to its most powerful and original purpose: to foster greater strength and healing,” said Heinz Family Foundation chairman Teresa Heinz, in a statement. “The Heinz Awards recognize the artists and creators who help us better understand the challenges of our culture. Vanessa’s bold, thought-provoking sculptures, together with her community-based programs, clearly reflect that spirit, demonstrating not only a commitment to artistic excellence, but also to work that enfolds viewers into an experience that is both confronting and healing.”

German, 46, moved to Pittsburgh in 2000. She has been known locally for years for her sculptures, especially those built around doll-like forms inspired partly by Congolese Nkisi power figures and lavishly adorned with found objects, from cowrie shells to house keys, beads and mirrors. (She gathered many of the items on the vacant lots of Homewood, where she then lived.) She’s a powerful spoken-word performer whose performances, like her visual art, explore the toll of racism and violence, especially on Black people.

German calls herself a “citizen artist” whose creative output is one with her activism. In 2011, she launched Love Front Porch, a community arts center on her literal front porch, in Homewood. In 2014, across the street, she acquired a building and created ARTHouse, a community art center.

All the while, the list of venues across the country that have shown her work kept growing, from the Fralin Museum of Art, in Virginia, and the Spelman College Museum of Art, to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, in Arkansas. Locally, her work has been shown widely, from the Mattress Factory and Artist Image Resources to an ongoing installation at the Frick Museum of Fine Art.

Other recent or upcoming exhibitions include her solo show “Sad Rapper,” at the Kasmin Gallery in New York, and “vanessa german—THE RAREST BLACK WOMAN ON THE PLANET EARTH,” which opens in October at Mount Holyoke College Art Museum.

The Heinz Award is not german’s first big cash prize. In 2018, she won the Don Tyson Prize, which came with $200,000 in cash.

But – sad news for Pittsburgh – german is leaving town. In 2021, the ARTHouse closed after a damaging fire, and, not long afterward, german realized the years of gun violence she had lived through in Homewood — a man once died on her front stoop — was too much. “It became impossible to work there because I was scared so much of the time,” she said.

German said this week she has not worked in Pittsburgh for about a year, and in fact was speaking from her new home in North Carolina. She still owns three buildings in Homewood which she plans to retain as artist residences (one being the ARTHouse, which she still intends to renovate).

Her plans for the Heinz Awards prize money include establishing an artist retreat on her new property.

“There’s a space I can share, because the land is in the Western North Carolina mountains, where people come and feel a sense of peace and respite,” she said.

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: bodriscoll@wesa.fm