Vanessa German: Helping to Heal Traumatized Youth Through Art
In the wake of the shooting death of five people, including a pregnant woman, during a family cookout in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, on March 9, legislators and community leaders in the battle-scarred community have scrambled to address the ever-present threat of gun violence in Pittsburgh and its surrounding area. “We are not going to stand for this,” Wilkinsburg Borough Councilor Marita Garrett said at a meeting of concerned citizens three days after the targeted ambush. “No more vigils, no more meetings to discuss this, we have to take action.”
Vanessa German, a sculpture and performance artist who lives in neighboring Homewood, has spent the last five years taking action in the only way she knows how: encouraging the area’s youngest residents, who sometimes wake to the sound of gunfire, to heal their trauma by making art. It is an impulse that stems from her own childhood in the Mid-City area of Los Angeles, where gang members wielded decommissioned AK-47s from slow-moving cars with darkened headlights. Haunted by the violence around her, and obsessed with the randomness of it, she discovered that giving voice to her ideas was the way she could feel most alive.
German, 39, had the idea to engage children in her new hometown in 2011, after she saw a man fatally shoot a neighbor. That year, Rachel Maddow called Homewood “America’s most dangerous neighborhood.” German began sculpting on her porch, a spectacle that attracted curious kids from the surrounding area, who were soon making art right alongside her. She called the project Love Front Porch. Instead of playing a game impersonating gang members in nearby alleyways, kids appear on German’s doorstep ready to arm themselves with paintbrushes.
A year later, while making art on her porch, she heard 21 gunshots ring out, an incident which moved her to launch a new initiative. Inspired by the signs supporting political candidates that her neighbors planted in their yards, she made placards that read “Stop Shooting, We Love You,” and her neighbors began requesting them. She estimates that she’s made 2,500 since then—two of which are visible on Google street view directly across the street from the murder scene in Wilkinsburg.
German talks about the excruciating aftermath of a gun murder, the code that keeps Pittsburgh’s children silent about the violence they witness, and how making art can heal their trauma.
What’s been the scene at your front porch since the shooting?
Things here are on edge because of the possibility of retaliation. The zone commander for the police in the neighborhood sent a text message saying there was going to be an increased police presence because they’re expecting retaliatory violence, and that it helps everyone that whoever knows about the shooting, to speak up. So they’re just saying that if you know something, you should tell, and if not, from what we know, retaliatory violence could start, and people should look out. It’s scary, especially being that I’m around so many kids and people drive up the streets and start shooting. Mostly that happens in the evening, but once the weather changes and it’s nicer, it happens more.
The kids who come to make art on your porch have the same childhood trauma stemming from gun violence that you experienced in Los Angeles.
One of the reasons I am an artist is because when I was a kid, I was afraid that I could get killed. I was very aware of how suddenly your life could be taken from you. I remember these two little girls had been sent to go get some milk for their dinner. They got some milk and as they were leaving, a car drove by, shot them, and killed these two little girls. I’ll never forget their mom screaming, and the way that they got shot, and their bodies were lying on the spilled milk because the milk cartons got shot and there was blood and milk running together. They were so young, and they didn’t know. It sort of started to drive me to obsession when I was a kid. It’s not like I could tell anybody how much I thought about it. Nobody else was talking about it. I didn’t feel it was safe to let anybody know that I was basically obsessing over the blood and the milk, and how come nobody told those girls they were gonna get killed.
Trauma started to affect my memory very early. I can’t tell at all how old I was when the little girls were shot. Other people know they were 3 or they were 8 or they were 9. I can just guess that I was 8, 9, or 10?
What are kids in your neighborhood saying about the shootings?
This one time at the art house, the kids lined up in front of me and I was drawing at a table, and they would come and work next to me and they would tell me their death stories: “This is what he looked like in the casket, I don’t know why they cut his hair like that,” and “I dream about being in this bloody bed,” or “There was this shootout in the alleyway and I’m scared that the people are going to come in the house with guns.” They ask, “Well, what are we supposed to do with the feelings?” And I said, “Most everything that I feel, I make art with, so we can do that.” And that was the day the girl painted a big red bed with a headstone and a body on it.
Do you have a planned artistic response to this massacre?
We’re planning a permanent memorial for people who have been killed in the street. The memorial will have a black Madonna shrine and there will be lots of beautiful blue glass and it will be a space that will have the atmosphere and the beauty of the blues: a place to grieve, a place to celebrate, a place to sit. Street violence is totally at epidemic war proportions. It’s like a civil war, basically. And there are Civil War memorials everywhere, but there’s no living memorials to hold in the space of public memory all of the lives that are lost to the war of the street. The fence that surrounds the art house is wood now, but we’re covering it with glass mosaic and it will feature creatures of flight, and each of the creatures will be in somebody’s name. There will be some for the people who were killed in Wilkinsburg last week.
How often do you run into your “stop shooting” signs?
I see them around. But it’s not enough after there has been a tragedy to just be like, “Oh well. We’re sad, there’s nothing we can do.” I make art that is deeply concerned with healing and trauma, so I recognize that whenever I see a sign, it’s somebody’s voice. It is like a human standing up and raising their hand and saying, “Stop shooting, we love you.” One of the victims from the shooting last week [Shada Mahone], her funeral was Monday, and one of the things [Rev. Richard Wingfield, who conducted the funeral] kept repeating to people was that you have to love a little bit more every day. Love the best that you can every day. Whenever I see one of the signs, I recognize that it’s someone who’s courageous enough to stand by what the sign says. It’s a very difficult thing — when there’s so much promise in the history of so much pain, and so much grief, and so much anger — to say, “We love you, and we honor that, and we want you to honor it, too.”
On the Love Front Porch website, you say, “I love Homewood. I’ve never loved a place before.” What do you want people to know about Wilkinsburg, Homewood, and the rest of Pittsburgh’s suburbs?
Most of the time, stuff like this doesn’t happen. But when it does, it happens more than it happens elsewhere. We can go a month without a shooting, and it’s tricky, because you start to feel the peace, and then something shakes it. I want people to know that it’s mostly single mothers raising kids, and people just living their lives. But what happens in places like Homewood is you see the cumulative effect of systemic racism, structural racism, and white supremacy. Because the reality is there are neighborhoods that struggle and they could be stabilized. There aren’t people who have the human will, the political will to do that, until it becomes a matter of erasure. This is how we get used to it. Trauma will convince you that you’re used to it, and that it’s not a big deal, but that’s a lie.
This interview was published in partnership with The Trace, an independent, nonprofit news organization that reports on gun violence in the United States. To read past installments in our ongoing interview series, visit the archives. Photographs courtesy of Love Front Porch.