If you tuned into “CBS Sunday Morning” last week, you saw artist Vanessa German describing the piece of art she was commissioned to create for the National Mall in Washington, DC.
German is one of six artists of color represented in the exhibition “Beyond Granite: Pulling Together.” Unveiled in mid-August, the pop-up show is designed to explore and challenge the role of monuments in American history. German’s striking creation was inspired by Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 Easter concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Entitled “Of Thee We Sing,” the nine-foot steel and resin sculpture incorporates a figural representation of Anderson held up by a sea of hands and Sandhof lilies. The tall-stemmed lilies, native to Namibia in Africa, are known for their trumpet-shaped flowers.
But you won’t need to travel to our nation’s capital to see German’s work. She’s the featured attraction at The Contemporary Dayton (The Co) in the exhibit, “The Blue Mother,” and will come to town Thursday, Sept 21 to discuss her work at The Tank in the Dayton Arcade. The event is free and open to the public.
On display at The Co are 13 of German’s intriguing “power figures” which have been compared to Congolese Nkisi sculptures. The traditional figures, often made of wood, represent humans or animals. According to Smarthistory (The Center for Public Art History), the sculptures were carved in collaboration with an “nganga” or spiritual specialist who activated them through chants, prayers and the preparation of sacred substances aimed at curing physical, social or spiritual ailments. A second gallery contains four of German’s bird form sculptures.
German, who labels herself a “citizen artist,” embellishes her power figures with found objects: beads, glass, fabric, shells, teacups, bottles, keys, strings and sculpted wood.
It was at New York’s Kasmin Gallery that The Co’s curator Michael Goodson first encountered German’s art.
“I knew nothing of her and she had a show there called ‘Sad Rapper,’” Goodson recalls. “It was like nothing I had seen recently. It felt intuitive and, as it turned out, she is pretty much self-taught. They look like it just poured out of somebody, a kind of passion.”
Goodson admits he’s not typically “huge on passion” and prefers artists who pursue ideas and have all extensive labor involved. “But that was there too,” he notes. “Each object was like a vessel of labor and time. Also there was a kind of deep activism in it that has to do with gender equality, comfort with who we are in our bodies.”
When he began inquiring about the possibility of bringing German’s work to Dayton, he learned she was deeply connected to this region. “All of her family lives in Cincinnati and her mom is considered a legend in freehand machine quilting,” he says. " She taught her children the importance of storytelling through art and telling your truth through art.”
Goodson says German is a strong woman, an activist and a great speaker. “The titles of her work are very important,” he adds.
- “YOU ARE ENOUGH LOVE YOUR BODY”
- “FREEDOM IN THE SOUL”
- “SITTING IN THE POWER OF BEING EXACTLY WHO YOU ARE”
“It’s easy to call the work assemblage and be done with it but it’s so much more than that,” says Goodson. ”She has a deep sensitivity to color and material and how it works together and how she can speak her truth through it.”
The mother-daughter connection
Surrounding German’s sculptures at The Co are 10 intricate and beautiful quilts created by her mother, Sandra Keat German. It’s as if her mother, who died in 2014, is still enveloping her daughter with love.
“My mother had a traumatic childhood, she grew up in the heavy-handed presence of white supremacy; she grew up in Jim Crow,” German told me in a recent phone interview. “Jim Crow forced people to shrink and hide themselves to be safe. Your self-expression was a matter of life and death… always felt super weird.”
“My mother homeschooled us before it was popular,” German adds. “She did not outsource the kinds of humans she made. The first real school I went to was Loveland High School. And I went to the University of Cincinnati for a couple of years.”
Prior to becoming a quilter, Sandra had been a costumer, working with with fibers and textiles, clothes and toys. “She did costumes for Broadway, she made gowns for performers and wedding dresses,” her daughter explains. “Then she started quilting in L.A. and it changed her life. She found part of the voice of her soul when she found quilting.”
German says she and her four siblings were raised by a parent who taught them to be the kind of people who could read and make things. ”She taught us to be creative as a way to be alive. There were art supplies all over the table. She was a teacher, whether she was teaching quilting or English As A Second Language.”
Sandra became a nationally known quilt maker who taught and inspired hundreds of students, including many in the Miami Valley. One of those is Peri Irish Switzer, a local fabric artist and quilt maker who first met Sandra when both were members of the Miami Valley Art Quilt Network. “She was a good teacher, bubbly and energetic,” recalls Switzer. “She could build your confidence as an artist.”
Sandra’s obituary described her as a “phenomenal woman, artist, educator, quilt-maker, friend, revolutionary and wife” who taught her children “to question authority, to speak up, to show up, to dance and sing, to laugh, to eat well and to fight for what’s right.”
Labeled “the queen of free motion machine quilting,” Sandra was featured in the award-winning documentary “Pennsylvania Quilts” and was the founder of the Grailville Quilters and the Grailville Quilt show. Her award winning works of fiber art have been shown in galleries and museums around the world.
Serving the community
Sandra filled her home with art supplies; her daughter has followed suit. In 2011, German founded the Love Front Porch in Pittsburgh, an arts initiative for local neighborhood women, children and families that began after she moved her studio practice onto the front steps of her home. Three years later, in 2014, she opened the ARThouse, which combines a community studio, a large garden, an outdoor theater, and an artist residency.
“I bought a house and filled it with art supplies, anybody can come and make art,” she explains. “On the second floor artists can live rent-free. Kids are less inhibited, they are joyful. Adults function on shame. Kids come and bring their parents and grandparents.”
In 2022, German was awarded the Heinz Award for the Arts. Other awards include the Don Tyson Prize from the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the United States Artist Grant in 2018, the Jacob Lawrence Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 2017, and the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation Grant in 2015.
German is hoping people have an experience with her art that belongs only to them. “They don’t have to talk about art like on PBS,” she says. “I hope that it gives them a sense of lightness, joy and fun. I want people to feel safe enough to be at The Co and have complex feelings. I hope they leave with a little sense of hope that things are possible, that things are going to be OK.”
HOW TO GO
What: An exhibit entitled “The Blue Mother” with sculptures by Vanessa German and quilts by Sandra Keat German. Also, a film by Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca entitled “Swinguerra” which focuses on disadvantaged queer communities of color in Brazil with an emphasis on three dance styles that feature transgender and non-binary performers.
Where: The Contemporary Dayton, 25 W. Fourth Street, Dayton
When: Through Oct. 1; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday
For more information: 937-224-3822 or www.codayton.org
A conversation with Vanessa German will be held at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 21 In The Tank at the Dayton Arcade. The event is free and open to the public.