Joy Machine #3, Kick Push, Ring The Alarm, Fly, 2019. Mixed-media assemblage, 54 x 94 x 22 in. Photo: Courtesy Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, New York and Fort Gansevoort, New York

What Remains In a Person’s Soul: A Conversation with Vanessa German

Visual and performance artist and activist Vanessa German might also be described as a full-time resident artist. Her Pittsburgh neighborhood of Homewood is the driving force behind her work; it is also home to the ARThouse, a community arts initiative that she founded in 2009 to bring art to local children, and the Museum of Resilience, an ongoing labor of love that blends pilgrimage, remembrance, and reflection into an experience of shared humanity, transformation, and creativity. German’s work ranges from spoken-word poetry to personal “power figures” made from discarded materials and large-scale, multisensory installations, as well as portrait collages of popular personalities such as tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams. German’s practice coheres around central themes related to storytelling, marginalized voices, and the ability of art to be an empowering force of community engagement.

Vanessa German in Avery Court, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, Hartford, CT, 2016. Photo: Allen Phillips/Wadsworth Atheneum

Amanda Dalla Villa Adams: What was art like for you growing up?
Vanessa German:
I’m the daughter of a fiber artist. I always watched my mother make things. She mined her materials from this world—flea markets and fabric stores. I would watch how much finding the right materials meant to her. She would walk into fabric stores and touch fabric and get really close to it. I always had respect for the dimensions of the making process. I grew up in Los Angeles in an environment where people found out they were HIV positive and getting AIDS. I grew up very aware of the fragility of life. One way that my mom kept us whole and safe there was that she always made us make stuff. She would put a bunch of materials on a table—modeling clay, fabric, cardboard, scissors—and we would make our own stuffed animals and dolls. That’s how we spent our days. I grew up understanding that I didn’t have to outsource my making. My mom made our clothes, and we never went to the mall. We would go to the flea market, and my mom would say, “Choose this and then you can change it.” For me, art was connected to how you make a life and accessing my own creativity. One of the ways that she would get peace from us, her five children, was to drop us off at the Los Angeles County Museum complex at 8:45 in the morning before it opened, and we would spend entire days during the summer in the galleries.

I experience this now when I take kids from the ARThouse to our local museums in Pittsburgh. But they have not been treated well. They have been treated like Black kid refugees from the hood who come to the museum on the one free day a year. People don’t treat them like they are whole; they treat them like semi-animals. That didn’t happen to us when we were growing up and going to museums—we got to know all of the security guards and the museum people. It was very safe for us. We were five free-ranging kids in the museum who were very curious about what was there and how museums decided what should be there, what was important, and the secret language that a museum uses to tell you where to direct your eyes.

ADVA: Reclaimed materials are an important part of your sculptures, wall reliefs, and collages. What
are the meanings of these materials, and how do you acquire them?

VG: I have created my own personal, visual, symbolic lexicon of materials. They are things that I always use. They speak and have their own vocabulary, whether they are spoons, forks, knives, hatchets, machetes, clocks, watches, or bottles. I’m really interested in how domestic cleaning materials and objects for the home were marketed and advertised. I’m interested in tins from the 1950s that promised to make things brighter and whiter and in how ideas of Americanism and beauty are communicated through these objects. I think politically, culturally, and spiritually about the strata of simultaneity of time past, present, and future. During the 1950s, a lot of those materials were being used by women of color who would leave their own families and homes to make someone else’s life brighter and whiter. I’m using them the same way that I use language in poetry. I invite viewers to call on their own memories and experiences with them, to have a scavenger hunt through objects, and to bring that into the present place of purpose and memory.

It’s different when I do collage on printed matter, like the Serena Madonna (2015), which used the Serena Williams Vogue cover. I started that series because the comment sections were horrifying, saying things like, “She’s not even a woman,” or “She’s a monkey,” or “She’s too big to play and she dresses ugly.” During the Grand Slam, the line judge committed egregious ball calls on her; when she protested, they said that “she was an animal who had no grace.” At the time, I thought, “If Serena Williams doesn’t have grace, then I don’t know what grace is. If Serena isn’t graceful for standing for her own body and her own name, if she isn’t graceful after having been spit on by her opponent in the locker room to then go out and play them, beat them, and then have the grace and gratitude to thank the people who helped her get there—if that’s not grace then I don’t know how any human functions within this world. If Serena isn’t beautiful then how could I ever be beautiful?” I started that series very personally to commiserate with what was happening to a Black woman who really is excellent. If the mainstream population cannot contend with her excellence, then it is really easy to kill Sandra Bland, Trayvon Martin, or me. That was devastating to me. I started these works because I needed to find a way to silence the vicious narrative that was going on and cycling through my brain, but also to focus on what I know to be true, which is that Serena is whole and graceful. I am whole, and I am graceful.

Serena Madonna, 2015. Mixed media on Vogue magazine, 20 x 12.25 in. Photo: Courtesy Concept Art Gallery, Pittsburgh, and Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, NY

ADVA: Your figures, as in Lessons On How to Ride the Eagle (2016), visually resemble Congolese power figures and, like those sculptures, they are often performed out in the street. Is the connection intentional?
VG: I had always been interested in dolls and playthings. My mother wanted us to make treetop angels one Christmas, and instead of making an angel, I wanted to make what I was experiencing being alive. I had collected nails from outside my mother’s studio, and I put them into a clay form and strung beads from the face. A Black women’s art group had a table at a summer art fair. I brought that figure, and a precolonial African history expert from Carnegie Mellon walked by the table and said, “Oh, you’re influenced by the Congo people.” I asked, “What are you talking about?” She said, “You know, the things with the nails.” I said, “I’m sorry, those are the nails from outside my mom’s studio.” She looked at me strangely and advised me to do some research. I looked into it, and I saw what she saw, which made me consider what remains in a person’s soul. Perhaps I’m connected to these people and this place. I met with the expert, and she said, “You know, most of the people who were brought to this country and were enslaved, the majority of them came from the Congo and Sierra Leone.” She started talking about remnants and what remains inside.

ADVA: You do spoken-word poetry performances and outdoor performances in an urban environment. How have your performances changed over time?
VG: Starting out as a kid performer, the first big change in my life was realizing that I didn’t always have to perform someone else’s words. I could write and perform my own ideas. That was a big shift for me because I realized, as I think many writers do, that you can make a world and create stories that are mirrors to this world and play with language. I realized as a child that I could write poems. I was obsessed with writing a poem that would allow me to cure cancer inside of the poem. I love what happens to my body physically when someone tells me a story; I’ve read about the limbic system and how your brain can pulse and become a receptor to pull in a story in a way that changes your body and your brain.

I went from doing the spoken-word circuit to getting an opportunity to apply for a grant. I decided that if I was going to do all that paperwork, I wanted to do an experiment, and so I did a spoken-word opera where I performed poems. I started from standing at a mic reciting a poem to wanting to invest in a story. I entered a national poetry contest and wrote about what mattered to me. I wrote about my sister who had MS and knowing what an AK-47 was for my whole life. I wrote something that was very personal for my soul. I won the competition and was told that I was an activist who was using words in a way connected to policy but also very personal. Then I started to sit down at the edge of the stage and talk to people in the audience, and they would respond to me. When I did the show at the Wadsworth Atheneum, I let the audience ask questions, and I performed the answers. I wanted to have electric moments of connection and vulnerability. I started to make performances on the spot. I would ask if someone in the audience could dance and if they would feel comfortable performing as I performed my poem. These performances would activate the power of social connection, the power when people are creative and vulnerable together. The work went from just being me at a single mic to me having 45 minutes with video and digital projections of me on street corners with signs saying, “I want to make a poem for you. How do you want to feel after this poem? Would you like a romance poem or a political poem?”

Can I Love You Without Capitalism? How?, 2019. Mixed-media assemblage, 59 x 67.5 x 26 in. Photo: Courtesy Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, New York and Fort Gansevoort, New York

ADVA: You run the ARThouse and use the Love Front Porch as a community gallery. You’ve also received funding for the Museum of Resilience. Can you talk about bringing art to Homewood?
VG: The idea of building a museum in my neighborhood was born because I live about two miles from the Frick Museum. People see a neighborhood a certain way because there’s a museum in it; the houses and the neighborhood are valued differently. I thought, “I’ll put a museum in Homewood and say, ‘This way to the Museum of Resilience,’” and then the people, the place, and the structures would start to have a shifting identity. You can stand in front of the Frick and across the street you can hear sirens and gunshots. It is a totally different world. I think about how difficult it can be sometimes to live in relation to your own triumph. At some point in every life, you have to live through something. If I ask you to think back to the hardest point in your life so far, you will have to touch on something. And there are degrees to it. In my workshop, sometimes I say, “Think back to that time and then give yourself a word or a phrase to hold on to it, and then give yourself a good credit for the fact that you are here. You made it through. You are working your way through it. You’re about to create something else and create something that hasn’t been seen before in the world. You are here. You are building the muscle of resilience.”

There’s a great DJ, who is also an academic at UCLA, who coined the phrase “misery resistance.” The summer that Eric Garner was killed, I started to hear about and see young people not be able to leave the house. People were miserable and saying, “Stop shooting us. Stop shooting our kids.” There was an outcry. The result of not being ok was a kind of mainstream misery. She talked about how people of color in this land have to be intentional about resisting misery because the despair of depression eventually leads to psychosis. You have to resist the sickness and be generative toward your own joy—and that’s a radical act. I thought that I could bring an intentional ingredient to misery resistance by creating a museum that amplified the power of resilience that human beings possess. If we connect with it in each other, we can meet people in places that create spaces where everyone can be whole and human, where they can be well in their humanity.

For the Museum of Resilience, I would travel around the world and have my friends who work with Amnesty International (when they could), trace the outline of human hands and send them to me, so we could make them into tiles. People could send handprints from anywhere, from Myanmar, Africa, a prison in Mexico. We will mosaic a structure with those hands, so they rise up to a point. They will be coated with texture and color, and there would be a key to explain where each one came from, for instance, from a child in a refugee camp in Sierra Leone.

ARThouse, Homewood, PA. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, New York

The Museum of Resilience is my garage at ARThouse. I got $10,000 from Arts Matter to secure the building and more funding from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art Don Tyson Prize, so it is expanding into the idea of an experience, almost like a pilgrimage that starts in front of the ARThouse. We put glass mosaic butterflies into the sidewalk in front of the ARThouse, and if you follow them, they’ll walk you around the corner to the Museum of Resilience, which is on Formosa Way, a street that Rachel Maddow walked through on MSNBC and that used to be called the Killing Fields. This alleyway has an incredibly traumatic history, and the experience of the museum will honor the lives of the people who have been lost. You come up to it and have a moment of connection and also possibly reflection. It should not just be a place, one physical structure, but an experience.

There are a lot of women who work the streets around my neighborhood. One woman I’ve known for years, and I saw her injured on the porch of an abandoned house. She has been fighting addiction so hard, her family is fighting for her, and she tries so hard to stay off the street and then she’s back. She cried to me, “Miss Vanessa, you have made the ARThouse and a lot of the kids go there, but could you make a house for women?” I told her, “I have another house.” The Museum of Resilience walks you up Formosa Way, following the mosaic code on the sidewalk and in trees, and it leads to a house entirely in blue and mosaic—think of Alice Walker’s idea that a woman needs to live in a blue house at some time; it’s the freest place to live. The mosaic is called 100 Black Women Make a Blue House. We’re creating a letter fence that will be an interchangeable set of poems. The Museum of Resilience will be these structures, but because of the walk and the codes of the site and moments that we put in the pathway, it is also a reflection of the triumph of humanity inside us. Almost the way that a labyrinth is an intentional space for meditation. We’re creating a space for that. You end the cycle at a place where you could then create an object—it’s a generative space for making.