vanessa german

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vanessa german
vanessa german on stage
Born1976 (age 47–48)
Known forSculpture

vanessa german[1] (born 1976)[2] is an American sculptor, painter, writer, activist, performer, and poet based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Her sculpture often includes assembled statues of female figures with their faces or heads painted black, and a wide range of attached objects, including fabric, keys, found objects, and toy weapons.[3] german is an activist, addressing problems like gun violence and prostitution.[4]

Her work is held in numerous permanent collections, including the Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; and has been reviewed by Sculpture[5] and discussed in The New York Times,[6] O, The Oprah Magazine,[7] and on NPR's All Things Considered.[8] Her art has been featured in a wide range of galleries, museums and traveling exhibits, including the 2012 "African American Art 1950–present" touring exhibit from the Smithsonian Institution.[9] She was a 2015 recipient of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Biennial Grant.[10] She was the winner of the 2018 Don Tyson Prize, a biannual $200,000 award from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.[11]

Early life[edit]

vanessa german was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin[12] and raised in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles[13] and Loveland, Ohio[5] by her mother, Sandra Keat German (1949–2014), a fiber artist,[2] quilter and costume maker.[14] She is the third of five children.[15] She moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 2000 and began to perform and exhibit her work locally.[16] She describes her work as heavily influenced by her childhood in Los Angeles, where her mother encouraged the children to make their own clothes, and she was also impacted by the AIDS epidemic and drive-by shootings.[17]

Artistic career[edit]

A self-taught artist, much of german's artwork is collage and sculpted assemblages.[16] german's sculptural work frequently includes female figures that she calls "power figures" and "tar babies".[18] She creates them by decorating and painting large dolls and figures, then sculpting outward by adding a wide range of materials including objects like cowrie shells, plastic guns, feathers, bottle caps, seashells, toys, and vintage products.[16] She often uses found and donated materials from her Homewood neighborhood.[2] She discovered that her work included elements similar to the central African tradition of Nkisi nkondi, guardian statues pierced with nails and other materials.[19]

Her materials lists for artworks are often poems in themselves. They may include both the physical (e.g. cloth, paint, keys) and non-tangible materials (e.g. "the names of all the dead boys that I know," "tears").[3] Recurring themes addressed in her work include food, birds, violence, injustice, poverty, and Black Madonna imagery.[20][21] In her artist statement for 2016's dontsaythatshitoutloud, she describes the impact of finding two men murdered outside her house within a four-month period.[22]

Her work includes the symbolic use of color throughout. Describing beads from one work, she said "If they're red, they're holding rage and love simultaneously. If they're white – they're holding ghosts – the presence of your ancestors ...and they're also holding forgiveness and peace."[23]

Of Thee We Sing (2023) at the Lincoln Memorial in 2023

In 2023, german was one of six artists commissioned to create a temporary installation for the National Mall in conjunction with Beyond Granite: Pulling Together, the first curated art exhibition in the Mall's history. Commissioned by the Trust for the National Mall, National Capital Planning Commission, and National Park Service, german created an assemblage sculpture of African-American singer Marian Anderson for the plaza of the Lincoln Memorial. german's sculpture Of Thee We Sing (2023) memorialized Anderson's performance in the plaza from 1939, hosted after Anderson was denied permission to perform in the segregated DAR Constitution Hall several months prior.[24]

german, like the author bell hooks, stylizes her name in all lowercase. In 2023, she told The Bergen Record that this decision was "a way I level myself without hierarchy."[1]

ARThouse and Love Front Porch[edit]

german also led the ARThouse and Love Front Porch, a community art institution, in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA.[7] She started the ARThouse when she needed to start creating artworks on her front porch because her basement ceiling was too low: her large sculptural pieces had to be taken apart to be removed from the basement. After she started working on the porch, ARTHouse was born.[25][2] Neighborhood children began gathering to watch her work. This expanded into a dedicated community art space, which moved twice before moving into its permanent location, a house purchased with donations and proceeds from her art sales,[7] dedicated in December 2015.[16] In 2012, Love Front Porch received a $4,000 grant from the Sankofa Fund of Southwest Pennsylvania, which highlights empowering grass-roots African-American community projects.[26]

german also ran the Tuesday Night Monologue Project at ARThouse, a weekly event where guest artists and members of the community could write and share works with each other.[27]

Homewood was described as "The Most Dangerous Neighborhood in America" by MSNBC journalist, Rachel Maddow.[28] german has said about Homewood, "...that doesn't happen every day. It doesn't happen every week. Most people aren't shooting each other. Most people are not running drugs. It's a very small percentage of the population who are engaging in really extreme activities."[25]

The ARThouse suffered severe damage from a fire in 2021 and was closed to the public. german fundraised to renovate the space but decided to leave Homewood herself and moved to North Carolina, describing the impact of living in a community with significant violence by saying "It became impossible to work there because I was scared so much of the time."[29]


german's work is held in the following permanent collections:

Notable exhibitions[edit]


"Tar Baby Jane". Filmmaker Gregory Scott Williams, Jr., 2010.[16][42]

Selected reviews[edit]

"Vanessa German." Sculpture magazine. July/ August 2012.[5]

"Cut-and-Paste Culture: The New Collage". ARTnews. December 12. 2013.[43]

"Exhibition Review: Unloaded." afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism. May 22, 2015.[44]

"i take my soul with me everywhere i go". The Georgia Review, September 13, 2016.[19]

"Review: "Africa Forecast" shows how convention inspires Black women's spirit". ArtsATL, November 11, 2016.[45]

Notable appearances[edit]

  • "The City is Ours Today" (poem). Inauguration of Pittsburgh mayor, Bill Peduto. January 2014.[16]
  • "Root" (performed and written spoken word opera) Martha's Vineyard Playhouse, 2011.[46]
  • Performance poem. Fashion Africana (2004), Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh Music Hall.[47]



  1. ^ a b Beckerman, Jim (March 21, 2023). "'Washington Crossing the Delaware,' reimagined, at Montclair Art Museum". The Record. Archived from the original on August 26, 2023. Retrieved August 26, 2023. vanessa german, who styles her name all-lowercase, like bell hooks and e. e. cummings ("it is a way I level myself without hierarchy")
  2. ^ a b c d Rao, Mallika (October 6, 2014). "This Sculptor Is Using Trash To Inspire One Of Pittsburgh's Toughest Neighborhoods To Make Art". HuffPost. Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  3. ^ a b "Artist Vanessa German displays her love for Homewood in NYC". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  4. ^ "Exhibition: Vanessa German Bitter Root – MSU Billings | MSU Billings". Retrieved April 23, 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d Amy, Michael (July–August 2012). "New York: Vanessa German, Pavel Zoubok Gallery". Sculpture: 75.
  6. ^ Rosenberg, Karen (March 6, 2014). "Booths Devoted to Women Multiply at the Art Show". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  7. ^ a b c "A Sculptor Creates a Bright Spot in a Struggling Community". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  8. ^ "Young Artists Find Home And Healing at Pittsburgh Art House". NPR. Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  9. ^ a b Villarreal, Ignacio. "African American art since 1950 from The David C. Driskell Center on view at the Taft Museum". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  10. ^ a b "Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Unveils 2015 Biennial Grant Awardees". Artforum. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  11. ^ "Artist Vanessa German Needed Money to Repair Her Steps in Pittsburgh. Then She Won $200,000 From the Crystal Bridges Museum". Artnet News. December 18, 2018.
  12. ^ Great Women artists. Phaidon Press. 2019. p. 153. ISBN 978-0714878775.
  13. ^ "Vanessa German: Helping to Heal Traumatized Youth Through Art". Carnegie Museum of Art: Storyboard. Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  14. ^ Fredrickson, Erika. "Roots and juju". Missoula News. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  15. ^ a b "American Visionary Art Museum – Our Visionaries: Vanessa German". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g Lidji, Eric (May 18, 2016). "Citizen Artist: Vanessa German". Pittsburgh Magazine. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  17. ^ Fredrickson, Erika. "Roots and juju". Missoula News. Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  18. ^ a b Albritton, Ann (November 2015). "Sarasota, Florida: "Re-Purposed", The Ringling Museum". Sculpture: 72.
  19. ^ a b "i take my soul with me everywhere i go". The Georgia Review. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  20. ^ DUNNE, SUSAN. "Wadsworth Atheneum Exhibit Confronts Violence Against African-Americans". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  21. ^ Berger, David S. "Vanessa German's sculptures continue to impress in a new show". Pittsburgh City Paper. Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  22. ^ O'Driscoll, Bill. "Vanessa German shows off powerful print-based work at AIR". Pittsburgh City Paper. Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  23. ^ a b Record, MARGA LINCOLN Independent. "The transformative power of art and love: 'Vanessa German: Bitter Root' opening reception is today". Helena Independent Record. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  24. ^ Gopnik, Blake (August 17, 2023). "On Our National Mall, New Monuments Tell New Stories". The New York Times. Archived from the original on August 19, 2023. Retrieved August 20, 2023.
  25. ^ a b Bullock, Maggie (April 17, 2019). "The Future of Work: The 'Citizen Artist' Bringing Hope to Pittsburgh's Homewood". Shondaland.
  26. ^ "$4,000 grant to 'Love Front Porch'". New Pittsburgh Courier. Vol. 103, no. 38 (City ed.). September 19–25, 2012. p. B3.
  27. ^ Writer, Shahum Ajmal | Staff (April 5, 2018). "Women hone craft at Art House in Homewood".{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link) CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  28. ^ NewsPoliticsInfo (May 26, 2011), Rachel Maddow Goes To America's Most Dangerous Neighborhood (Part 1/2), retrieved March 5, 2017
  29. ^ O'Driscoll, Bill (September 22, 2022). "Pittsburgh artist vanessa german wins prestigious national award". WESA. Archived from the original on October 10, 2022. Retrieved August 27, 2023.
  30. ^ a b c d "Vanessa German "i am armed. i am an army."". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  31. ^ "Works – Vanessa German – People – Heinz History Center". Retrieved June 1, 2021.
  32. ^ "Frederick R. Weisman Art Foundation – Past Exhibitions". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  33. ^ "Vanessa German | Pittsburgh Biennial 2014". Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  34. ^ "Vanessa German: The Ordinary Sacred". New Pittsburgh Courier. Vol. 106, no. 6. February 11–17, 2015. p. B5. ISSN 1047-8051.
  35. ^ "German and Human". Hartford Magazine, Hartford Courant. June 2016. p. O25.
  36. ^ "Critic's Choice". Hartford Courant (Main ed.). May 29, 2016. p. G2.
  37. ^ "Exhibition Spotlight: Vanessa German at the Everson Museum of Art". Retrieved March 24, 2017.
  38. ^ "State of The Art". Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Retrieved June 21, 2021.
  39. ^ "Mattress Factory: ActiveArchive". Retrieved March 28, 2018.
  40. ^ "Vanessa German: Miracles and Glory Abound". Retrieved May 20, 2021.
  41. ^ "The Frick Pittsburgh Announces Partnership with Vanessa German" (PDF). Retrieved April 2, 2021.
  42. ^ German, Vanessa (January 1, 2000), Tar Baby Jane, retrieved March 4, 2017
  43. ^ "Cut-and-Paste Culture: The New Collage | ARTnews". ARTnews. December 12, 2013. Retrieved March 5, 2017.
  44. ^ "Exhibition Review Unloaded | Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  45. ^ "Vanessa German | ArtsATL". Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  46. ^ "Root : Martha's Vineyard Playhouse". August 5, 2011. Retrieved March 4, 2017.
  47. ^ Norrell, Debbie (November 21, 2004). "Fashion Africana!". New Pittsburgh Courier. Vol. 95, no. 93. p. B1.
  48. ^ "Heinz Awards - vanessa german".
  49. ^ "2017 Art Award Winners – American Academy of Arts and Letters". Retrieved March 23, 2017.
  50. ^ "Four recognized at Urban League's Ron Brown Gala". New Pittsburgh Courier. Vol. 105, no. 51 (City ed.). December 17–23, 2014. p. B8.
  51. ^ "Community supporters feted at leadership reception". New Pittsburgh Courier. Vol. 98, no. 10. March 7–13, 2007. p. C3. ISSN 1047-8051.

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