Vanessa German and the Gift, the Glory, and the Power of Blue

Artworks at The Corning Museum of Glass come in all shapes and sizes, from the tiniest fragments to installations that take up entire rooms. One new acquisition, Vanessa German’s The Walker; for how to honor the price of compassion—how not to die of lies, fits quite neatly into the middle of that scale. However, that’s the only thing that’s easy to categorize about this beautiful, loud, complex, strong, emotional, and compelling piece of art.

Vanessa German’s The Walker; for how to honor the price of compassion—how not to die of lies (2017), 2020.4.2

The Walker is a larger-than-life-size artwork of a female figure bedecked in blue artifacts standing finely balanced atop a wooden sawhorse with arms outstretched. The glass, wood, beads, fabric, and twine that make up the body of the sculpture are all objects made or found by the artistdelicately crafted, lovingly repurposed, and imbued with significance and purpose.

A self-taught sculptor, activist, poet, and performance artist, German introduced herself, her work, and the arc of her career, to the Museum’s member community during an exclusive talk on April 1, 2021. A recording is now available to everyone on the Museum’s YouTube channel. Over the course of an hour, we learn what inspires and keeps German strong, and how her very existence as a Black woman and artist is represented in each object she creates.

Originally from Los Angeles but now living in the Homewood neighborhood of Pittsburgh, PA, German begins her presentation by honoring the Haudenosaunee people and the Seneca nation and acknowledging the land she now resides on is stolen land. She continues by describing herself, the shape of her face, and the color of her hat and shirt. Small details that anyone with sight might take for granted. But German invites those without such privilege to share in the digital image of her in her studio with her cuddly dog Judy. She makes both these gestures organically and then moves right along.

German often speaks with her eyes closed, letting the words come out naturally; sometimes slowly with precision and care, sometimes quickly, revealing her thoughts with rhythm and energy like slam poetry. Her approach is warm, caring, friendly, natural. She smiles a lot. “That’s me,” she says, simply. But all these little acts of kindness and inclusion reveal a lot about her as a person and an artist.

German believes with her whole being in the power of art, because, as she reveals, “it literally saved my life.” Her process as an artist involves constantly learningfrom her ancestors, her memories, from other artists, from the world around her, and the communities dearest to her.

For almost 20 years, German has been using sculpture as a way to heal the “sacred and powerful and magical” Black body, a body that too often is subject to violence and too often suppressed for expressing emotions. The Walker speaks directly to the challenges of, as German describes, “being a Black bodied human, when there’s so much anti-Blackness and so much violence towards the Black body, the Black soul, Black creativity, and Black families and Black communities.” But equally, her work is about building space for Black joy and care. As she continues, “What does it take to really balance a place of activism, of teaching a society to value you and to see you holding your humanness, but also having an ecosystem where you can just be free and be whole, and, to be, and live in freedom and to live in Liberty, which is the soul’s right to breathe. How do you find that balance and walk that balance that is held inside of that peace, that place of glory, that place of despair, that place of human delight and senses that contrasts with the threats against your body and your soul and your children’s bodies and souls? It’s a complicated, messy, remarkable journey to walk.”

To learn more about the evolution of German’s work, from her small, discreet sculptures to massive installations with entire communities of life-sized figures, watch her lecture. Nobody speaks about German’s work better than her. The scale, the trauma, and the strength of her work are all lived experiences that she shares freely and openly. Learn why German thinks the transformation glass makes during the glassmaking process is “spiritual.” Learn why German says “blue is a gift,” pulling inspiration and symbolism from the blue in the American flag, the power of water, and the music of the blues.  

“If there is one lecture you listen to this year, let it be Vanessa German’s,” said Susie J. Silbert, curator of postwar & contemporary glass at the Museum. “She is hands down one of the most inspirational artists I work with. Every moment I spend in her presence is a moment that I am actively becoming a better human being. She is a powerhouse and her essential message about care is transformational.”

The Walker; for how to honor the price of compassion—how not to die of lies, an important acquisition made with generous support from The Ennion Acquisition Fund, is now on view in the Museum’s Contemporary Art + Design Galleries.

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