'Citizen artist' spreads message of peace to neighborhoods

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Joined by a small group of participants, artist Vanessa German pushed a handcart holding her newly created statue along the sidewalks of her Homewood neighborhood Saturday afternoon, past weedy lots, razor wire and houses in various states of repair.

"As we walk, think about our safety and thriving and being healthy and having joy, lots of joy on our street, and lots of love," Ms. German said.

At one point the sidewalk surface was so rough that a few pieces of the mixed-media sculpture fell off, but she calmly gave the pieces to fellow marchers to hold and continued on.

"I don't mind that the road isn't perfect, that the sidewalk ain't straight," she sang out boldly, improvising while navigating around puddles and potholes.

The procession was the latest combination of art and activism for Ms. German, an artist and poet who uses her craft to promote peace and to welcome neighborhood children seeking a positive alternative to street violence.

She had sent out requests via Facebook and other means for people to send their prayers and wishes, and they came in by the dozens from around the world -- everything from specific requests for exhausted young mothers and people with cancer to general aspirations, such as the single word, "compassion."

She wrapped them in what she calls "Homewood beads." She wrote out the prayers on paper, wrapped them around seeds from neighborhood trees and then surrounded them with plaster and other media before placing them on the sculpture of an African woman. She also added other symbols to the statue -- such as keys, representing forgiveness, and birds, for liberty.

She and other participants walked nearly two miles from Homewood to Edgewood, where her exhibit "Citizen Artist" opened last week at Concept Art Gallery. Drivers on busy Braddock Avenue cautiously navigated around the group, some honking in support, as the cluster of walkers gradually grew to about three dozen.

Howard Aikens of Point Breeze walked the whole route after hearing Ms. German recite a poem at Mayor Bill Peduto's inauguration last week and then learning about the upcoming march. He said the area neighborhoods are too often divided by race and class.

"There need to be more bridges," he said. "That's why I'm here."

The group stopped at various points along the route, including at the Sankofa Village for the Arts on Braddock Avenue, where young people played drums and others danced with her.

Ernest Bey of the group Mad Dads of Greater Pittsburgh, which does street patrols in various neighborhoods, said he came to the march to support Ms. German as "one of the stakeholders" in the neighborhood.

Concept Art Gallery owner Sam Berkovitz echoed the thought, saying Ms. German continues to find creative outlets for her art and activism. "She's breaking new ground," he said. "It has an amazing resonance."

Peter Smith: petersmith@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1416 or Twitter @PG_PeterSmith.

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