State of the Arts

S38 E4 | CLIP

The Glamorous Life: Artist German Pitre

State of the Arts meets artist German Pitre during his 6-month tenure as Artist-in-Residence at the Paul Robeson Galleries at Newark Express. German works with controversial symbols in his work, including swastikas, Confederate flags, and more. He describes his approach, plus the story of how he became an artist. It all began with a chance encounter on a bus to Jersey City.

AIRED: January 25, 2020 | 0:05:49


Davson: First of all, he's an extremely committed artist.

There's a commitment to this work that is fierce.

Narrator: German Petri is an artist in residence

at Express Newark,

a Rutgers University co-laboratory

with the Newark arts community

housed in the historic Hahne Building.

German's parents were migrant farm workers.

Petri: We would travel with the seasons from the South

and come all the way up to Buffalo, New York.

I was in the fields trying to pick string beans with them.

You know, they just laughed.

Narrator: His family settled in Newark, New Jersey,

in the late 1960s, when German was just 5 years old.

They lived in the basement of this brownstone

on Bleeker Street.

Petri: Here for about three, four years.

Yeah, and they had a potbelly stove there.

That's how we heated up the space.

Man: That's crazy.

Petri: So, my mother would go across the street

when they were doing the demolition and bring wood

and then burn the wood in the potbelly stove.

Narrator: 50 years later,

German can see his childhood home

from the window of his Express Newark studio.

Petri: In the mornings, before going to school,

I would watch this program that taught perspective drawing.

So I would do that in the morning

before I would go to class.

Man: And this roof and this slant --

this direction matches.

Petri: But by 9, we're living in Baxter Terrace in Newark,

the projects, Baxter Terrace.

And so, then I proclaimed to my mother,

"I'm gonna be an artist."

It must have been around 15

I started going to the Newark Museum.

My mother encouraged that.

And I saw a lot of art there.

And from there, I just kept working and working,

but I also kept going to the library.

I spent a lot of time in the library.

And there was this book, a catalog.

It was "The De Luxe Show."

And I was looking through it, and I says,

"I never see black artists that do abstractions,"

and I say, "Who's this guy?"

And I started looking. It said Peter Bradley.

Then I saw the paintings. They were abstract.

And I started carrying it around with me all the time,

just reading it over and looking at the work,

really looking at the works.

Narrator: And then an extraordinary thing

happened on a bus to Jersey City

while German was looking at his catalog

of Peter Bradley's paintings.

Petri: So, I'm looking through the catalog,

and the guy sitting next to me --

he was a stranger -- he looks over and he sees --

he says, "Oh, I know that -- that guy.

That's Peter Bradley."

I says, "I'd like to meet him!"

He says, "Oh, well, tell him that Ivan sent you,"

and he gave me the address and everything.

Narrator: That chance encounter led to a three-year job

with the artist Peter Bradley, an apprenticeship, really,

and then jobs with other well-known artists,

including Marthe Keller.

Petri: 'Cause I couldn't have never planned it.

All this stuff, let's say, happened by accident.

That's my art education.

Narrator: German's Express Newark artist in residency

includes a stipend, studio space,

and a solo show at the Paul Robeson Gallery

at Rutgers Newark.

The show is called "The Glamorous Life."

Petri: Advertising sells this image

where everything is pristine.

And then the real life is not as glamorous

as the one that is being projected.

I like symbols, iconology,

because most people can relate to them.

Either positive or negative, they're gonna relate to it.

Davson: I think these images, the skull and crossbones,

are not exactly accidents.

I mean, I think he's thinking about things like mortality.

He's thinking about things like toxicity.

He's thinking about things --

you know, all of the things that are impacting us

politically and socially right now.

They're just below the surface of this work.

The stars, which one could associate --

certainly, I associate with the stars and stripes,

you know, I mean, he's pretty much pulled it apart

and sort of embedded it in this black and white, or black goo.

Narrator: German uses controversial symbols,

including the swastika,

but, he says, his focus is on the image

as it was found in ancient cultures around the world,

long before it was co-opted by the Nazis.

Petri: It has nothing to do with Nazism.

I don't sympathize with Nazis.

I'm not a Nazi sympathizer, none of that.

The swastika is much older than the Nazis.

One of the meanings of swastikas is good will, good health.

That's what it represents -- love -- those things.

It's just that the Nazis had taken it

and corrupted the image.

So, what I was doing was taking that image back and saying,

"Well, wait a minute, why can't we use this

and take it and go back to its truest meaning?"

Davson: This work is also quite rigorous.

I mean, he is not about to be decorative.

Petri: I get to express myself.

It's my passion. I don't know.

It's a fire that burns all the time,

if you will, you know, that I just love doing it.