Artist Vanessa German had dreamed of coming back to Montana. Not only has she completed her goal, she brought some of her creative work to share with the state.
The Pittsburgh sculptor, poet and activist has an exhibition of her artwork, called “Bitter Root” on display in the Paxson Gallery of the Montana Museum of Art and Culture at the University of Montana.
Although German said the only time she had visited Montana prior to her exhibition was family trips to Glacier and Yellowstone national parks when she was a kid, she’s been fascinated with the state ever since she first listened to the audiobook of author James Lee Burke’s novel “Bitterroot” for the first time years ago.
“I’ve been listening to it a few times a year for eight or nine years now,” German said.
MMAC curator of art Brandon Reintjes said he first met German at an art festival in Baltimore in 2012. He didn’t have any idea she held a special place in her mind for Montana when he said where he was from.
“And she said ‘Montana, I love Montana.’ So I told her we should try to get her to come out for an exhibition,” he said.
Her artwork, using sculpture and reclaimed materials, makes reference to classic folk art as well as the history of slavery, particularly the transatlantic slave trade.
The series at the MMAC includes figurine sculptures that German carved and casted in plaster. Set into the bodies of the figures and adorning their bodies are pieces of found material, from shells, buttons and bottlecaps to keys, beads and fabric. One doll has a skirt made entirely from children’s shoes.
Most of the figures are mounted on some type of transportation like a truck, skateboard or canoe.
“All of them are vehicles of transformation. It’s a part of a process of reckoning with the past with the interest in creating the future,” German said.
Following the showing in Missoula, German’s work will go on a tour around the state, with exhibitions in Billings and the Holter Museum of Art in Helena.
As part of her recent visit to Missoula, the MMAC held a First Friday demonstration downtown where German used a sign to stop people on the street, who could ask her to recite a poem for them.
“I think it really turned people onto the underlying tones of her sculpture work,” Reintjes said.
German said it was fun to talk to people about the state when her best frame of reference was the audiobook she had heard so many times.
“I don’t live in a geography that is expansive, I work out of a small art studio space.” German said. “I was telling the curator that’s where I imagine I can be free, just blend in with the natural environment.”
She said the more she spoke with people, the more they would say that hearing her talk about Montana made them think that they often take the ability to go and see these places for granted.
“They would say ‘That’s the Clark Fork River,’ and I would say ‘The Clark Fork! I’ve heard all about that. How long would it take us to go get to the reservation or Flathead Lake?’” German said.