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Young Artists Find Home And Healing At Pittsburgh Art House

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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.

"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.

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.

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