Aug 18, 2023 - Culture

Pennsylvania artist brings art exhibit to National Mall

Rending of Pennsylvania artist Vanessa German's installation, "Of Thee We Sing" at the National Mall.

Rendering of Vanessa German's installation, "Of Thee We Sing," at the National Mall. Courtesy of Monument Lab

When she pondered what the National Mall missed, Pennsylvania artist Vanessa German quickly realized it was a monument to the human heart.

Driving the news: German is a self-taught artist who made a name for herself in Pittsburgh. She is one of six artists whose work will appear at "Beyond Granite: Pulling Together," a month-long exhibit debuting this weekend at one of America's most hallowed venues.

  • The Trust for the National Mall partnered with Philadelphia-based public art nonprofit Monument Lab on the project, which runs through Sept. 18.

The big picture: German's piece "Of Thee We Sing" is a statue of Black opera singer Marian Anderson singing at the Lincoln Memorial, where she delivered her famous 1939 performance after being barred from then-segregated Constitution Hall.

Artist Vanessa German
Artist Vanessa German. Photo: Courtesy of Vanessa German

The intrigue: Hands rise above the mirrored cube images of Anderson's face. The base is photos of the diverse crowd of 75,000, intentionally staring out at visitors, and a bed of Sandhof lilies that only bloom every few years.

  • The flowers are illustrative of a rare moment when Black and white people convened together during a time of deep racial divide.

What she's saying: German said her late mother, Sandra, loved Anderson, and she hopes visitors are similarly moved by her art installation.

  • "Nobody melted standing next to Black folks," German says. "Nobody's eyes bled like they were in front of the Ark of the Covenant. … People walked away with her voice inside of them."

Zoom in: German inherited her love of art from her mother, a gifted quiltmaker who instilled lessons of self-reliance, creativity and bravery in her children. She'd place art supplies on the dining table for her kids to use while she worked in her studio.

  • Later, art became a lifeline for German to endure the struggles that accompany her life as a Black, queer woman.

She encountered racism from residents when she moved from Pittsburgh to a farm outside Asheville, North Carolina, to escape the drumbeat of death and gun violence.

  • One neighbor installed a barbed wire fence near a walkway bordering their properties.

The bottom line: Whenever she needs an uplifting message, German hears echoes of her mother's voice from her childhood: "You're gonna have to work that out. Here's some paint."


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