Stars shoot from Vanessa German’s hands.
Energy crackles from her very being.
Here is more light and creative energy than can be contained in one body -- in one lifetime -- in one art medium.
Award-winning sculptor, playwright, poet, actress, activist, performance artist, photographer, teacher -- these are just a few of the dynamic shapes Vanessa German takes in life.
You can get a small taste of her multifaceted art at the opening reception for her exhibit, “Vanessa German: Bitter Root,” from 5:30 to 8 p.m. today, May 29, at the Holter Museum of Art. She has also been the Holter’s Cultural Crossroads visiting artist for the past two weeks, working with more than 300 third graders from the Helena Public Schools.
On one level, her sculptures are playful and whimsical. Their bright color fantasia pulls you in. But then you pause -- beginning to suspect there is more to this story.
Why is this female figure pushing a scooter and wearing a necklace of keys, and why does she have a pistol hanging from her waist? And why does the scooter pull a small cart holding a female figure with a ship perched on her head as she balances on a cow?
It’s called “My Migrating Soul with the Prize Blue Ribbon, or Kick Push Kick Push.”
German’s description of it reads: “old doll parts, toy noise makers, the sound of my neighbor running out of the house at 5 a.m. and screaming, wood, tar, old scrappy quilt, my mother was a quilter, ... a short national memory, rage, Homewood beads ... huge sea shell from the ocean, ceramic elephant, bottle caps, keys, buttons, tears, rhinestones for eyes, cowrie shells, mirror, ship on the head, toy cow, toy cart, coffee tin, match stick bin with a tiny little gun in it just in case this sculpture needs to protect itself along the journey, hope, interconnectedness, a beautiful hairbrush, American Legion pin, glass bottles, toy gun, baby shoe, beads, grandma’s old jewelry, faith in the transformation, something about the power the power the power of love, and a small bird cage … (that) plays music.”
These are just two of her “mixed-media-assemblage power figures” on exhibit.
“All of the figures … carry a strata of weight. They carry a stratification of grief, acceptance and liberty across a dimension in time -- for the past, present and the future,” German said while sitting in the Holter gallery.
“The figure stands on a cow, and I think of how black women were used as cows,” she said, referring to not only their milk being used to nurse other people's children, but "their bodies were used as breeding machines." She spoke of the Laura Plantation in Louisiana, where the owner bought five young girls and bred them for years and years to produce “a crop of children,” who become the plantation’s slaves. "So I think of how these women were treated."
“She is holding the grief, the acceptance and the liberty, which is the reality of not having to live that reality any more,” said German. It also holds a present-day reality of pain -- "the misogyny that black women and women of color still go through in this country. ...Just look at the life span of an African-American woman and the life expectancy of her children."
"The past applies pressure on the present," she said. There is power that comes with facing and reckoning with that past story and creating with it and turning it around. "I'm working with all of it and turning it around."
The exhibit’s title “Bitter Root” can be traced back to the historic seeds of the imagery and to a spoken word phrase by German: “The Bitter Root, Lost Loot, Sore Tooth, Oh Shoot, Whole Truth, Traveling Reckoning Show.”
But it also refers to James Lee Burke’s novel,”Bitterroot,” which German listened to on tape for about five years. “I listen to it over and over again, because it makes me feel like I am in Montana. I love hearing about the landscape. Whenever I need to I listen to this book (and) I travel to Montana ... to a wide place that is almost exactly the opposite from where I am … and it helps me feel good.”
German’s figures are made not only from a fantastic array of found and historic odds-and-ends, but also swaddle beads made from rolled ugly knots of fabric that she rolled in the earth. They "contain her grief" and make it physical.
Her power figures ride on scooters, in wagons or on skateboards to represent “they’re going on a journey -- they’re active.”
They’re also transformative. The colors of the beads are symbolic. “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."
German’s art speaks not just of the past, but of the very real and violent present of her Pittsburgh neighborhood, Homewood.
“There is a lot of murder in my neighborhood,” she said. “It’s been called America’s most violent neighborhood. People die on the streets you walk on.”
She witnessed a murder and soon will be in court to testify about it. She still crosses the street to the opposite side, so she doesn’t pass where it happened.
Homewood’s citizens and children carry the extreme trauma of these regular shootings inside of them, she said, remembering the screech of tires and the explosion of shots.
Out of violence and death and pain, German chooses to create art, beauty and meaning.
When she would come out of her basement studio to sit on her porch creating art, children kept hopping her fence to ask her questions: “What are you doing?” “Can I do it too?” -- wistfully eyeing her paint and paint brushes.
“There would be days when my front porch was covered with kids,” she said, and they were painting on every bit of cardboard or wood that could be found. It came to be called Love Front Porch.
Now, it’s outgrown her porch into a neighborhood Art House, where the whole neighborhood can get involved in art-making.
“We’ve created a space of such love and joy,” she said, describing its evolution.
“I believe in the power of art, and I believe in the power of love, and I don't distinguish between the two. I am very fortunate to understand what my life is about. ...My life is about the creative, redemptive and transformative power of love - power of art. I believe in the power of art."