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Young Artists Find Home And Healing At Pittsburgh Art House

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Young Artists Find Home And Healing At Pittsburgh Art House

Arts & Life

Young Artists Find Home And Healing At Pittsburgh Art House

Young Artists Find Home And Healing At Pittsburgh Art House

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With the help of her aspiring young artists, Vanessa German has transformed a house in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood into a work of art. Erika Beras hide caption

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Erika Beras

With the help of her aspiring young artists, Vanessa German has transformed a house in Pittsburgh's Homewood neighborhood into a work of art.

Erika Beras

Pittsburgh is being lauded for its resurgence and livability, but not all of the city's neighborhoods are reaping the benefits of this revival. Homewood has the city's highest murder rate; it's an impoverished neighborhood, where a third of the houses are blighted. But there's also hope, in no small part because of artist Vanessa German.

German recently presided over a housewarming for Homewood's new Art House — a place where neighborhood kids go to become artists. German used to make sculptures on her porch. Kids noticed her covered in plaster and paint, and asked if they could help. She gave them brushes and told them to make their own art.

Vanessa German with Saniya Smalls, one of German's students. Courtesy of Vanessa German hide caption

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Courtesy of Vanessa German

Vanessa German with Saniya Smalls, one of German's students.

Courtesy of Vanessa German

Art allows you to "express everything that you want to get out," says Shay Clifford, a 14-year-old Art House regular. Above, art hangs on the wall in the Art House's temporary location. Courtesy of Vanessa German hide caption

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Courtesy of Vanessa German

Art allows you to "express everything that you want to get out," says Shay Clifford, a 14-year-old Art House regular. Above, art hangs on the wall in the Art House's temporary location.

Courtesy of Vanessa German

"I experience such joy and a sense of deep rightness and completeness when I'm making things," German says. "Like when I'm deciding how I'm going to engineer some sculpture to stand so it looks like it's defying gravity, and I'm using my brain, and I'm moving around, and I feel like giving myself a high-five, and I was like — why wouldn't kids feel that too!?"

Before long, there were more kids than could fit on the porch, so a neighbor lent German a house where she could host her young artists. They used that for a couple years until moving into this house.

Shay Clifford, 14, has been making art with German since the beginning. Today, she's pressing pastels to paper.

"It helped me a lot because there's a lot of violence here," she says. "So when you write and you draw and stuff you can express your feelings — how you feel living here and just put it on paper ... draw and paint about how you feel."

In the years since, German's popularity in the art world has grown. Now 39, she's has solo shows around the country, has won awards and her sculptures, complex black Madonnas assembled of found objects, sell handily. She was able to use her art world earnings toward invest in buying this house.

Though the Art House may be a refuge for kids, German says, it doesn't negate what it means to live in a place plagued by violence.

"It's hard when kids get killed — when anybody gets killed," she says. "It's hard and I don't think that I could survive if there wasn't more momentum on the side of good and hope."

That hope comes alive at the art house. Stephanie Littlejohn — whose grandchildren are dancing in an impromptu talent show — says the block still has plenty of crime, prostitution and drug dealing — but German's presence has changed its tone.

"It's like things have lightened up so much," Littlejohn says.

The Art House celebrated their new home with a "Night of Illumination" in December. Erika Beras hide caption

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Erika Beras

The Art House celebrated their new home with a "Night of Illumination" in December.

Erika Beras

Towards the end of the housewarming, the crowd spills out into a side lot. Often when she's out there, German is cleaning up drug paraphernalia — but tonight it's different.

The parents light a paper lantern and the kids spread out underneath.

"When we let it go, you better make a wish!" German tells the kids.

As the lantern lifts up into the air kids yell out their wishes to the night sky.