There's an art to making good use of a front porch

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The scouting report seemed straight out of Mr. Rogers' neighborhood: A woman in Homewood paints and sculpts on her front porch, and kids flock to her place as if it were an ice cream stand, so they can paint and dance and laugh.

Intrigued, I set up a meeting and drove to this "Love Front Porch'' just ahead of the rainstorm Thursday afternoon. A couple of dogs, which turned out to be a Jack Russell mix named Kayla and a pug/beagle named Boomer, yapped up their own storm before Vanessa German opened the door.

All four of us mammals then sat on the porch. Ms. German, 36, strung buttons and faux shells on thin metal wire as we talked and her dogs lounged.

She's a Los Angeleno who grew up in a big family that spent a lot of time on the front porch because her mother wanted her five children where she could see them. Her mother was a fiber artist and her father worked for Heinz, and in 2001 Ms. German helped move her parents to Monroeville. She took a long look around and decided to stay, and about five years ago she decided to move to Hamilton Avenue in Homewood.

For the kinds of art she does -- painting, sculpting, acting and something she describes as "spoken word opera'' -- the space is ideal. Her partner, Michelle Carello, a scenic designer and theater artist, has her office upstairs. Ms. German's studio is in the basement, but she works on the porch whenever she can.

"I love Homewood,'' she's written. "I've never loved a place before. To me, Homewood is one of the most inspiring places in the world, from the houses to the sounds of the buses running up the street. I've seen acts of love and bravery here that would leave you slack-jawed and damp-eyed with awe.''

The Pittsburgh Center for the Arts named her its 2012 Emerging Artist of the Year. She's performed at the Carnegie Museum of Art and the Chautauqua Institution, and her sculptures have been exhibited at The Andy Warhol Museum. All that's great, but what interested me was the idea that all she had to do was sit on her porch and kids would show.

Just as I was thinking the threatening skies might dampen any such magic, a couple of young girls walked past and got Boomer and Kayla barking. "Hi, Miss Vanessa,'' one said from the sidewalk with a wave, but she and her friend kept going. Five minutes later, the girls were back, sucking on Push Pops.

"You can come in if you want,'' Ms. German told them, and she didn't have to say it twice.

Ziarrah, 9, introduced herself and her aunt, Zoe, 8. I told Zoe my aunt was a little older, and she gave me the blank look that my comment deserved. Soon enough, the girls were showing me paintings they'd done on the porch, and then were pulling oversized T-shirts from a basket to throw over themselves to paint more. Just about then a deluge came.

"It's not that bad," Ms. German said as the rain slapped the porch roof. "We get to feel the cool and watch the storm.''

Ms. German brought out lemonade and a scarf for Zoe. Later, Ziarrah coaxed Ms. German to get up with her and perform a song-and-dance they'd worked on together:

"I'm runnin' with my slippers on,'' they sang, slip-sliding their feet. "I'm runnin' with my slippers on ... Too fast like a Cadillac ... Too fast like a Cadillac ... Can't touch me.''

That was sweeter than the Push Pops.

A printed sign facing the street, punctuated with heart symbols, says, "Stop shooting ... We Love You.'' Ms. German had hundreds such yard signs made, and they've been placed around Homewood and beyond.

The Heinz Endowments and the Pittsburgh Foundation awarded her a $5,750 grant in May to keep the paints and such coming, and the Allegheny Housing Rehabilitation Corp. is setting up temporary space in a vacant house just down the street so she and visiting artists can reach more kids. Her porch and front yard get pretty crowded sometimes.

Her website,, has raised more than $2,500 of the $12,000 she hopes to put toward paint, wood, fabric and other materials she'll pass around to kids making art.

Nobody sat down and planned for this to happen. Magic can't be planned, but it's amazing how far one can go running in slippers.


Brian O'Neill: or 412-263-1947.


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