PITTSBURGH — In a room full of people at Concept Art Gallery in this city’s Regent Square neighborhood, Vanessa German was far from silent.
The celebrated artist used her powerful voice through spoken word and her powerful visual work, including mixed media sculptures, to grab the attention of a crowd that had come to see the close of her exhibition, “The Incredibly True, Sometimes Horrific, Often Humorous Adventures of a Wacky Black Girl. Or, a Visual Ritual into the Power of the Black Imagination.”
German discussed that “wacky” part while showing me her latest pieces, saying that it referenced President Trump calling Florida Congresswoman Frederica Wilson “wacky” last October during a dispute over the president’s handling of a condolences phone call to the widow of a slain U.S. service member.
“I have definitely been the ‘wacky’ black girl, and that has been a term that was used to silence me, to undermine my presence, and to undermine any space of agency and authority that I might move within with my own body, with my own ideas,” German said.
As a visitor to Pittsburgh, and a newcomer to German’s work, I was the one who was struck silent, and left in awe in the presence of a woman who commanded her space with a captivating mix of glitter and beadwork and found objects and doll parts and so much more. Her presence was at the forefront as she wove a narrative of history and slavery and struggle and racism and oppression.
I came to see German and her work to learn more about Pittsburgh, and to better understand how art and culture are faring in the city as change continues to move in. As tech takes root, as the city confronts issues related to gentrification and homogenization, is Pittsburgh still the place to be and stay for a 41-year-old artist whose extensive body of work clearly taps into matters of deep spirituality and human-to-human connectivity?
German grew up in Los Angeles and moved to Pittsburgh in 2001. She stayed because her parents were here, and when her mother got cancer she stayed to take care of her “because that’s what you do.” She stayed after her mother died a few years ago, and she stayed in the Homewood neighborhood despite the depressing violence that she’s witnessed. She stayed to teach the kids in her community about art and so much more by example.
“I can afford to live and work in the same place. And that’s important for the kind of practice I have,” German said. “I sort of roll through days. If I need to sleep, I’ll sleep, but if I’m awake, I’m awake, and I’m gonna work. I can do that all in the same building because I could afford to buy a house.”
That ability to afford a home in the city, especially one where an artist like German can also have a workspace, is at the forefront of any discussion when it comes to the changing dynamics of Pittsburgh. People accustomed to a certain way of life in neighborhoods across the city would undoubtedly have to brace themselves if Amazon picked Pittsburgh for its second headquarters.
German’s work has gained her a national following — she just won the prestigious United States Artists Fellowship Award — and she likes to be able to get to the airport easily and travel to other cities to speak and stage exhibitions.
“It’s enough city, but not too much city,” she said of Pittsburgh. “You can also get away, pretty close — you can get on the turnpike and drive 45 minutes and you see the ridges of the Appalachian Mountains, and that’s a good reason to stay here.”
We talked about growth and jobs, and how many of her fellow Pittsburghers have told GeekWire over the course of this month how excited they are about the city’s chances to land Amazon’s HQ2. She asked about Seattle.
“How do families live there? What’s it like being a kid there? Is it good kid culture?”
For German, good culture goes beyond building the next big company and sending everyone to work every day. She is at a place where she questions all old narratives, she said, about building, growth, jobs, resources, and connectivity — whether it be digital or human connection.
“I am not a gleeful capitalist,” she said. “I think capitalism is really destructive. I’m not the kind of person who’s like, ‘build more’ … you can talk about jobs every day of the week. That’s a myth. The catchphrase, ‘the men need jobs’? We have to ask ourselves, ‘What does a human need? What does it mean to be human right now given what we’re tasking the earth to bare. Do the men need jobs? Maybe the men don’t need jobs. Maybe they need purpose. And does purpose equal a job? Not necessarily.”
The exchange even left me questioning my own need to take our conversation and turn it into work by writing about it. But my job has also been to better understand how Amazon fits into a place, and guess, perhaps, how it might fit into the next with HQ2.
I told German about Amazon Go, the cashier-less store in Seattle that the company built, which allows shoppers to grab items and leave without dealing with another person. Cameras and machine learning take care of the transactions in the name of convenience and urgency.
“What kind of human technology will rise up in resistance to that?” German asked. “What ways will creative resistance counteract the human disconnect, and the sort of affirmation of human disconnect that’s happening there? Because they’re affirming the disconnect there. The future? You do not need people. You don’t need to make eye contact, literally, in that reality.
“People actually don’t want you to feel other human connections,” she continued. “They want you to feel like you need that shit. Because needing shit that you buy means that the men have jobs.”
Despite that ability to just get in and get out with Amazon’s technology, and everything else that we plug into in modern society, there is still the original technology of the human soul, German argued. The technology of human connection is a real thing.
While German spent more than two hours on Saturday answering questions about her work and her inspiration and more, she is quick to ask many of her own. She wants to know why people do what they do — especially as it relates to people who have the ability, through science and technology, to solve real problems. Her environmentalism is palpable — perhaps because it’s so evident in the fact that her art personifies recycling and reuse of materials.
“I ask people, ‘Why are you doing that?'” German said. “If you want to get a job, what are you working for? Are you working to put another device in your pocket? Do you need to work 40 hours a week? Do you need to work 60 hours a week? Do you need to work 80 hours a week? How much time is worth the time of your life? I get to talk from a very soulful and spiritual place about work, about the value of your muscle, about the value of your intellectual prowess, about the value of your imaginative might.”
This deep philosophical worldview is glued and stitched and molded into German’s sculptures. Every trinket and every image, every piece of cloth or tiny button or coin has a story or purpose. People’s prayers are sewn inside of her work. Seeds from trees collected from the street where she lives are inside her work. Strips of forgotten sheet music from legendary Pittsburgh jazz composer Billy Strayhorn — a Homewood native — have been given extended life in German’s sculptures.
Pittsburgh benefits greatly by her staying, said Alison Brand Oehler, the Concept Art Gallery director.
“Vanessa’s star has risen,” Oehler said. “She has very intentionally chosen to stay here in Pittsburgh and live in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, and she works with the children in that neighborhood and has created what she calls an Art House. She has this amazing sort of dual practice of amazing, educational, interactive stuff with kids and these incredible sculptures and also a great performative practice. So she does a little bit of everything!”
Oehler said Pittsburgh is fairly supportive of the arts, in general. She referenced a “dynasty of old steel barons” and said that money has been put into local arts since the days of Andrew Carnegie, and that there is a history and a path that continues today.
“We’re still relatively affordable, although that’s changing, we’re getting less affordable,” Oehler said. “It’s obviously good for artists to have space to make their work. Vanessa being here, it’s sort of like anything, where you get a critical mass of opportunity, people want to come to it, so if she’s here that’s a draw for other artists, I think, to want to be here, living here, making their work.
“She could very easily move to a coast and be a part of a bigger art scene, but I think she chooses to be here and be a part of this community and make it even better than it is.”
It’s an interesting narrative, when related back to Amazon, a company that has created such a big scene of its own in a coastal city, as it looks for another community — perhaps a smaller one like Pittsburgh — into which it may try to weave or glue itself.