Young Artists Find Home And Healing At Pittsburgh Art House

Jan 24, 2016
Originally published on January 24, 2016 6:19 pm

Pittsburgh is being lauded for its resurgence and livability, but not all of the city's neighborhoods are reaping the benefits of this revival. Homewood has the city's highest murder rate; it's an impoverished neighborhood, where a third of the houses are blighted. But there's also hope, in no small part because of artist Vanessa German.

German recently presided over a housewarming for Homewood's new Art House — a place where neighborhood kids go to become artists. German used to make sculptures on her porch. Kids noticed her covered in plaster and paint, and asked if they could help. She gave them brushes and told them to make their own art.

"I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I'm making things," German says. "Like when I'm deciding how I'm going to engineer some sculpture to stand so it looks like it's defying gravity, and I'm using my brain, and I'm moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high-five, and I was like — why wouldn't kids feel that too!?"

Before long, there were more kids than could fit on the porch, so a neighbor lent German a house where she could host her young artists. They used that for a couple years until moving into this house.

Shay Clifford, 14, has been making art with German since the beginning. Today, she's pressing pastels to paper.

"It helped me a lot because there's a lot of violence here," she says. "So when you write and you draw and stuff you can express your feelings — how you feel living here and just put it on paper ... draw and paint about how you feel."

In the years since, German's popularity in the art world has grown. Now 39, she's has solo shows around the country, has won awards and her sculptures, complex black Madonnas assembled of found objects, sell handily. She was able to use her art world earnings toward invest in buying this house.

Though the Art House may be a refuge for kids, German says, it doesn't negate what it means to live in a place plagued by violence.

"It's hard when kids get killed — when anybody gets killed," she says. "It's hard and I don't think that I could survive if there wasn't more momentum on the side of good and hope."

That hope comes alive at the art house. Stephanie Littlejohn — whose grandchildren are dancing in an impromptu talent show — says the block still has plenty of crime, prostitution and drug dealing — but German's presence has changed its tone.

"It's like things have lightened up so much," Littlejohn says.

Towards the end of the housewarming, the crowd spills out into a side lot. Often when she's out there, German is cleaning up drug paraphernalia — but tonight it's different.

The parents light a paper lantern and the kids spread out underneath.

"When we let it go, you better make a wish!" German tells the kids.

As the lantern lifts up into the air kids yell out their wishes to the night sky.

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Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we head back to the mainland of the U.S. to Pittsburgh, which is being celebrated for its resurgence and livability. And in fact, we'll be heading to Pittsburgh for our Going There series in March to take a look at how that's all playing out.

But we do know that not all the city's neighborhoods are experiencing a revival. A third of the houses in the Homewood neighborhood are considered blighted. The neighborhood also has the city's highest murder rate. But as Erika Beras tells us, there is also art. And where there is art, there is hope.

ERIKA BERAS, BYLINE: Vanessa German stands in the doorway of a brightly painted and mosaic house, facing dozens of people. She's colorfully dressed, her hair styled into a mohawk, presiding over a housewarming for the Art House in Homewood.

(LAUGHTER)

VANESSA GERMAN: Thank you, all. Thank you, all. Thank you, all. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: You're welcome.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: And thank you for the Art House, Vanessa.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Thank you, Miss Vanessa.

BERAS: German used to make sculptures on her porch. Covered in plaster and paint, she drew attention. Kids asked to help. She gave them brushes and told them to make their own art.

GERMAN: I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I'm making things. I'm, like, deciding how I'm going to, like, engineer some sculpture to stand so that it looks like it's defying gravity. And I'm using my brain, and I'm moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high five. And I was like - why wouldn't kids feel that, too?

BERAS: The porch soon got too crowded with kids. A neighbor lent German a house. They used that for a couple years until moving into this house. Fourteen-year-old Shay Clifford has been making art with German since the beginning. Today, she's pressing pastels to paper.

SHAY: It helped me because there's a lot of violence here. So when you write, like, when you draw and stuff, you can, like, express your feelings on there, how you feel living here. And now you can just put it on paper and, like, draw and paint about how you feel and, like, express everything that you, like, want to get out.

BERAS: In the years since, German's popularity in the art world has grown. Now 39, she's had solo shows around the country, has won awards and her sculptures, complex black Madonnas assembled of found objects, sell handily. She was able to invest her art world earnings towards buying this house. She says this may make things better, but it doesn't negate what it means to live in a place plagued by violence.

GERMAN: That's hard. It's hard whenever - when kids get killed - when anybody gets killed. And I don't think that I could survive if there wasn't more momentum on the side of good and hope.

BERAS: That hope here comes alive in moments like this - an impromptu talent show in the living room.

STEPHANIE LITTLEJOHN: Them is my kids.

(LAUGHTER)

LITTLEJOHN: Miss Vanessa's kids, yeah.

BERAS: That's Stephanie Littlejohn, whose grandchildren are dancing. She says while this block still has crime...

LITTLEJOHN: People walking up and down the streets with the drugs transactions, the prostitution.

BERAS: ...German's presence has changed its tone.

LITTLEJOHN: It's like things have lightened up so much.

BERAS: Towards the end of the housewarming, the crowd spills out into a side lot. Oftentimes, German is there picking up drug paraphernalia. Tonight, it's different. The parents light a paper lantern. The kids spread out underneath.

GERMAN: When we let it go, you better make a wish.

BERAS: And then lantern is released and flies off into the night sky.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. Oh, this little light of mine...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm serious.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) ...I'm going to let it shine.

BERAS: For NPR News, I'm Erika Beras in Pittsburgh. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.