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Art is Alive

Jun 16 2020

Pittsburgh-based artist Vanessa German tells stories through sculpture, photography and performance, often tapping into the "invisible power" that both people and objects hold inside.

Her work has been shown at museums including the Smithsonian Institute and Pittsburgh Center for the Arts (which named her Emerging Artist of the Year in 2012), and this past winter and spring, her exhibition The Holiest Wilderness Is Freedom appeared as part of the Art in Focus series at Rockefeller Center. It showcased a series of portraits that she shot in her neighborhood, in which elaborate textiles, jewelry and headpieces provide a conduit to self-expression.

Meanwhile, the interior of 45 Rock displayed three of her "power figure" sculptures, constructed with fascinating combinations of found objects and handcrafted elements against sparkling, patterned backgrounds. She also led a hands-on workshop in which kids made their own power figures from fabric, beads and other materials.

German spoke with Front & Center about her work, her projects with kids, and the transformations that can take place through making and spending time with art. See images of her Rock Center installation and workshop in the slideshow above.

Front & Center: Could you talk a little about the power figures, and where you begin when making them?

Vanessa German: The idea inside of the power figure, the actual object that people look at, and the process of making it, is living with the idea that you have access on a daily basis—in whatever capacity that you have in your humanity, right where you are—that you have power to contend with any issues, any confrontations in your life, even if the world around you tells you that you do not have that power.

So it’s really honoring the power of your humanity, the power of your creativity, and then working with that sculpturally, inside of a transformative process.

Thinking about all of these different objects that show up inside of a power figure, one of the powers I’m accessing is the power to decide what that object means to you, the power to imbue it with deeper narratives, historical narratives, with memories. Because there are a lot of things in my work that remind me of things that were in my grandmother’s house, in my grandmother’s basement, or things that my grandmother used for her work.

And so I’m looking at that, and I’m saying yes, this is an iron, but it’s also this tool that my grandmother used every day to iron somebody’s shirt. To iron a man’s shirt, who wasn’t her husband, because my grandmother was a domestic worker. But I’m also thinking about the fact that while my grandmother was ironing she was singing, she was humming, she was praying, she was thinking about her family, and all that invisible power is also held in that physical object.

And then, looking at individual objects, if I'm thinking of the power of grace, if I'm thinking about the power of resilience, then I’m connecting it with these other objects.

You also make power figures with kids. How do you lead your workshops with them?

When I do a power figure workshop, I say, "If you could make a work of art that had the power to do anything, what would you want it to do?" And kids, they’re either going to know immediately, and they’re going to say, "I want it to have the power to make me fly" or "to make a million peanut butter and jelly sandwiches every minute." They’re just going to run with it, because I’m not telling them, "What would you do to change the world?" or "What would you do to make your neighborhood better?" But it really is tapping into that place of their human potential, to activate a force of change or momentum or transformation that they decide themselves.

I really have had kids who say, "I want it to have the power to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, so that no kid in the world is hungry." And I’ll say, "So what colors make you feel like that could happen? Just feel it, what colors make you feel it?"

And if they say "blue, green, purple," I’ll say, "So that’s something to look for—those colors mean something to you." What I do is ask them to pay very close attention to that thought and that idea about what kind of power they want to harness, and then to make relationships between symbols and objects and color and texture within that. And so they have this meaningful creative process because it is so personal, but it is also something that is purposeful.

They really focus, but it’s also a lot of fun, and they’re extremely proud. If you saw the pictures of what the kids made, with their parents… I mean, the parents have huge awakenings. One of the things I find, especially if they have a really little kid, when the parents finish the work, it’s beautiful to see how the parent feels. How they say, "I forgot how nice it was just to sit and make something," or "I forgot that I really like this," you know.

It sounds like it would be a really meaningful experience, and then the kids take this figure home that they live with, that they can always look at and remember making it.

I also tell them they can add to it. Let’s say that something special happens at school, and you get, you know, a keychain or something, or you find a key, you can always add to it. It can be alive to you. It can always be a place that you return to.

And so, for you, there’s the process of making art, and then there are the people encountering your art, and they’re bringing their own meanings to it as well. How do you see the whole process?

What I say is it’s a living process, what happens is alive… With making a power figure, you’re alive in the moment responding to a variety of materials, you’re responding and making connections between shape, color, form, texture, and power and purpose…

It’s an adventure in sight. So if you come upon the power figure, like the ones at Rockefeller Center, people walk by there, you know, 50 times a day, 50 times a week, going in and out of the building to their jobs, getting something to eat, getting some coffee, and I have people write me on Instagram and they say, "I walk by there every day and I see something different." I could show you letters people wrote me, and they were like, "Thank you, it just changes my walk, it changes the way I see, it changes the way I’m looking at the world."

And so, there’s that, that there’s always something different to see. But then it is not important to me that people know exactly what the power figure meant to me, as long as they begin to have a moment with it.

I’m connected to all these people who walked through Rock Center, and they’re connected to me, and those connections will have different intensities, but they matter… especially in a time when, I think we need to be reminded of the simple ways that we belong to each other as human beings.

Would you like to talk about the photography in the exhibition, about what went into taking the photos?

Oh gosh, I was depressed. It was the summer that the St. Louis police killed Michael Brown, and the Black Lives Matter movement started.

And there was all this, "Black lives don’t matter, all lives matter," you know it was all of that back and forth and then more people, then Eric Garner got suffocated to death and what I started to hear… I noticed on the internet that I was seeing a lot of my young activist friends say that they could not, they didn’t want to leave the house. And that they were experiencing a kind of sorrow and despair that was new, and that nobody understood, and that everybody at the Starbucks was still talking like things were normal when, you know, as a Black person in America, it’s really difficult to actually communicate viscerally how it grips you, that the police killed so many Black people but nobody is ever held accountable for that. It’s a very gripping fear that is a part of every time you get in the car… it really becomes part of an extreme of anxiety in your life.

So what I wanted to do was offer my friends some relief, so just started—I’m a photographer and I make stuff, so I started to ask my friends if I could photograph them, and how they wanted to feel. "How do you want to feel in a photo?" Like, "I want to feel like a queen," "I want to feel like I’m floating." And I’d say ok, I made one girl a big blue dress that was just covered in butterflies. And I made all these headdresses, and then we would walk around the neighborhood.

What it gave us a chance to do was to care for each other. I did everybody’s makeup, and, you know, it was a very caring, gentle environment that those photographs were taken in. But it also gave me the chance to repeatedly tell people, "You’re beautiful, that’s beautiful, that’s great, that’s wonderful, your smile is awesome… Just take a deep breath in and out, take a deep breath and let it out slowly and look straight into the camera, be wherever you are." So there were things that were really meditative in just repeating these affirmations to people while I was taking those photos. But also, you should know, that while I took those photos the police rolled up on me.

The police rolled up on me when I took the photo of the little girl with the boxing gloves on, and my friend, Brian Broome, and the police made me stand there, just 'cause they could. I didn’t do anything wrong, I just had all these cameras around my neck, I had my gear with me, and I had a model wearing a suit… And the police had me, for 10 minutes, keep answering these questions, like they didn’t believe me. They were like, "What are you doing with those cameras?" I said, "I’m shooting pictures." "Oh, you’re shooting? You’re shooting, with those? Are those yours? Where’d you get those? Are you a professional? Do people actually pay money for this?" He just kept peppering me with questions, because he could.

And when the police ask you a question, they can move up the hierarchy of where they can respond to you with more force. And if you don’t answer a question or if you answer a question with a question, then that’s considered a threatening action to the police. So I had to just stand there.

And it broke my heart, because we were having such a good time, and I wanted my friend to feel safe and protected… Then at the end of it, we were like, are you ok? I’m ok, I guess I’m ok. We have to be ok, right? Ok, we’re gonna be ok.

That’s terrible.

But the photographs are artifacts now. They’re artifacts of loving, caring moments, they’re artifacts that bore witness to this resilience and this beauty, and a love for life and joy and color. All of that exists in there.

Yeah, you feel that...

I also wanted to ask you about the photo for a different gallery show. It looks current because you're wearing a face covering, but how did it come about?

I sat with that, because it was the idea at the time, about 10 years ago, that people talk about thugs and they talk about gangsters, and they talk about dangerous people. And it was the idea that I wanted people to consider artists as dangerous, and that maybe what is dangerous is getting people to think differently or see a different way. Or to consider a Black woman artist, sculptor as dangerous—to the lie… Well, what kind of human being is dangerous to the lie of white supremacy? Who’s dangerous to that? And so that’s what it was about.

See more of Vanessa German's work at Pavel Zoubok Fine Art. The ongoing Art in Focus series at Rockefeller Center, produced in partnership with Art Production Fund, continues this summer.

—Karen Hudes

Photos of Vanessa German's artwork by Dan Bradica and workshop photos by Kat Harris, all courtesy of Art Production Fund.

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