Vanessa German's passion is rooted in her imagination, which has led her to build elaborate sculptures and write and perform stage plays. It has also been the vehicle she has used to help ensure the tools of creativity are accessible to the residents in her community.
After growing up in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, German came to Pittsburgh to live with her parents nearly two decades ago. She says she began creating art by using materials she found during her travels.
“And one of the ways I did that was, pick up stuff out of vacant lots and from the front porches of vacant houses," German said. "I would take this wood, and take these keys and bottle caps and old glass bottles that I would find. I would stack them and move them around a certain way in my studio. The act of moving the materials around and transforming them, did something to my mind, so my hands were busy and my mind would free up.”
Having struggled with depression, German attempted suicide on multiple occasions and found that art was her way to cope the realities of life. She attributes her ability to carry on as the catalyst for her artistic prowess.
“I decided that instead of ending my life, to sort of think about my life scientifically for six months and see if I could tap into the power of love,” she said.
A place she calls “The Art House” sits on Hamilton Avenue in Homewood; outside it’s draped with mosaic decorations. Inside are paintings, rooms filled with decorated chairs, bookcases and walls. Handmade African-inspired statues of powerful women stand tall, telling the story of what German says represents the pain endured by generations of oppression.
“I think of it as like a handed down sorrow, that my grandmother felt a little bit of this, and her grandmother felt a little bit of this ... for me, it is connected to like the rupture that African people experienced being ruptured from your land," German said. "And when you’re ruptured from your land, you're ruptured from the seeds that your people sowed in the ground to nourish your body.”
Children from the neighborhood are welcome to enter the house when the doors are open and encouraged to use art supplies to create anything that suits their imagination.
German's talents are not limited to the realm of visual arts. She won acclaim for her performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, a play written by Pittsburgh-born playwright August Wilson. Stage play director Mark Clayton Southers, says German’s talent is unmatched.
“She is the type of person I like to call a ‘D.I.A.P.'--a do it all person," Southers said. "She knows she has a gift, and with the gift comes a responsibility to share and to uplift and to help.”
Southers says despite German’s work being featured in museums around the world, including the Driscoll Center and the Smithsonian Institution, he is pleased to know she has no plans of leaving western Pennsylvania.
“It’s a pleasure to know that she decided to make Pittsburgh her home because she can go anywhere and succeed," he said. "She can go overseas and become a phenom, but it’s great that she decided to stay in Homewood.”
According to German, her motivation to create is not to produce art for art's sake; rather, she sees her art as an expression of love and opportunity to pay it forward.
“There's power in love," German said. "Love has literally saved my life. I am going to share it with other people because I believe in this power and it will do different things for each of us but it will always replicate itself.”