If you tuned into “CBS Sunday Morning” last week, you saw artist Vanessa German describe the art piece she was commissioned to create for the National Mall in Washington, D.C.
German is one of six artists of color represented in the exhibition “Beyond Granite: Working Together.” Unveiled in mid-August, this pop-up is designed to explore and challenge the role of monuments in American history. The stunning German creation was inspired by Marian Anderson’s historic 1939 Easter Egg Concert at the Lincoln Memorial. Titled “Of Thee We Sing,” the nine-foot-tall steel and resin sculpture includes a metaphorical representation of Anderson raised by a sea of hands and Sandhof lilies. Long-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 work. She’s the featured attraction at The Contemporary Dayton (The Co)’s “The Blue Mother” exhibit, and will be coming to town on Thursday, September 21, to discuss her work at The Tank at Dayton Arcade. The event is free and open to the public.
On display at The Co are 13 interesting German “power figures” that have been compared to Congolese Nkisi sculptures. Traditional figures, often made of wood, represent humans or animals. According to Smarthistory (Center for Public Art History), the sculptures were carved in collaboration with a “nganga” or spiritual specialist who activated them through chants, prayers, and the preparation of sacred materials meant to cure physical, social, or spiritual ailments. The second gallery contains four German bird sculptures.
Germain, who calls herself a “citizen artist,” decorates her powerful figures with found objects: beads, glass, fabric, shells, teacups, bottles, keys, string, and carved wood.
The Kasmin Gallery in New York was where The Co’s curator, Michael Goodson, first encountered German art.
“I didn’t know anything about her and she had a show there called ‘Sad Rapper,’” Goodson recalls. “It was like nothing I’d seen lately. It seemed intuitive and, as it turned out, largely self-taught. They look like they just poured out of someone, some kind of emotion.
Goodson admits that he’s not usually “very passionate,” preferring artists who chase ideas and get involved in all the intense work. “But that was there too,” he adds. “Everything was a vessel for work and time. There was also a kind of deep activism around gender equality, and being comfortable with who we are in our bodies.
When he began inquiring about the possibility of bringing German’s work to Dayton, he learned that it was closely associated with this area. “All of her family lives in Cincinnati and her mother is a legend in hand machine quilting,” he says. “She taught her children the importance of telling stories through art and speaking your truth through art.”
Goodson says German is a strong woman, an activist and a great speaker. “The titles of her works are very important,” he adds.
“It’s easy to call the work put together and done, but it’s much more than that,” Goodson says. “She has a deep sensitivity to colors and materials, how they work together and how she can express her true self through them.”
The relationship between mother and daughter
German’s sculptures at The Co surround ten beautiful, intricate quilts created by her mother, Sandra Kate German. It is as if her mother, who died in 2014, still surrounds her daughter with love.
“My mother had a traumatic childhood, growing up with heavy white supremacy; I 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. Expressing yourself was a matter of life and death… It always felt super weird.
“My mother homeschooled us before it became popular,” German adds. “She didn’t outsource the types of people she created. The first real school I went to was Loveland High School. I went to the University of Cincinnati for a few years.
Before becoming a quilt maker, Sandra was a fashion designer, working with fibres, textiles, clothing and toys. “I designed costumes for Broadway, made dresses for performers and wedding dresses,” her daughter explains. “Then she started quilting in Los Angeles 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 survive. 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 quilter, teaching and inspiring hundreds of students, including many in the Miami Valley. One of them is Perry Irish Switzer, a local textile artist and quilt maker who first met Sandra when they were both members of the Miami Valley Art Quilt Network. “She was a good teacher, very lively and energetic,” Switzer recalls. “It can build your confidence as an artist.”
Sandra’s obituary described her as “an extraordinary woman, artist, teacher, 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, and to express an opinion.” Eat well and fight for what’s right.
Sandra, the “Queen of Free Motion Machine Quilting,” was featured in the award-winning documentary “Pennsylvania Quilts” and was the founder of the Grailville Quilters and Grailville Quilt Show. Her award-winning artwork has been displayed in galleries and museums around the world.
Sandra filled her home with art supplies. Her daughter followed suit. In 2011, German founded Love Front Porch in Pittsburgh, an arts initiative for local neighborhood women, children and families that began after she moved her studio training to the front steps of her home. Three years later, in 2014, she opened 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, and anyone can come in and make art,” she explains. “On the second floor, artists can live rent-free. Children are less inhibited, and they are happy. Adults work on shyness. Children come and bring their parents and grandparents.”
In 2022, Germain received the Heinz Art Prize. Other awards include the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art’s Don Tyson Award and 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 Fellowship in 2015.
German hopes that people will have an experience with her art that is only theirs. “They don’t have to talk about art like they do on PBS,” she says. “I hope it gives them a feeling of lightness and 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 bit of hope that things are possible, that things will be okay.”
How to go
What: An exhibition titled “Blue Mother” features sculptures by Vanessa German and quilts by Sandra Kate German. Also, a film by Barbara Wagner and Benjamin de Burca titled “Swinguerra,” which focuses on underserved communities of color in Brazil with an emphasis on three dance styles featuring transgender and non-binary artists.
where: Dayton Contemporary, 25 W. 4th Street, Dayton
when: Until October 1; 11am to 6pm Wednesday to Saturday, and 11am to 4pm Sunday
for more information: 937-224-3822 or www.codayton.org
A conversation with Vanessa German will take place at 6:30pm on Thursday, September 21st at The Tank in Dayton Arcade. The event is free and open to the public.