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Lily Yeh finds beauty in broken places

Her Barefoot Artists project helps heal war-torn, broken, and economically devastated communities through art.

By Natalie PompilioYes! Magazine / December 5, 2011

Lily Yeh founded Barefoot Artists, which works with local artists in places such as the Palestinian Territories, China, and Rwanda to create art that transforms lives.

Courtesy of Fleisher Art Memorial

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“I have found that the broken spaces are my living canvas,” Yeh says. “In our brokenness, our hearts reach for beauty.” 

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Lily Yeh was home in Philadelphia, between planes – back from Palestine, en route to Taiwan –  and yet she was practically bubbling over. She was infused with energy because she was doing what she does best: using art to bring about healing, self-empowerment, and social change. 

Yeh is the founder of – and force behind – Barefoot Artists, an organization that revitalizes neighborhoods around the globe through the transformative power of art. In Palestine, that meant working with villagers to create a wall mural that Yeh calls “The Palestinian Tree of Life.” In China, it meant transforming a once imposing, prison-like school into a bright and brilliant place for learning. In Rwanda, it meant helping people heal the still-raw wounds left from that country’s genocide with a memorial to the lost.

In each of the locations, Barefoot Artists collaborates with locals, joining with them to create something beautiful or soothing or enlightening. As Yeh sees it, she is igniting the light of creativity that rests in all people.

“My message is that your light is as bright as mine. It’s like sunlight. There’s no difference. You just need to have it lit,” she says. “It’s not about just me. It’s about a lot of people, working together. 

“The project has to take root in people’s minds, emotions, and hearts. How do you do that? By working with them, by listening to them, by opening my heart. And when I have the space to listen, they usually open their hearts and share something and then we have the deep bonding and we can do something meaningful together.”

The Barefoot Artist, a documentary about Yeh that will be released next year, showcases these projects. The film reveals how Yeh’s journey led from the search for healing from her own brokenness to the healing of brokenness in others. And the result of that journey, says Tom Kaiden, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, has shown the world “how art can help tackle really difficult social and economic issues.”

Making Whole What is Broken

Yeh is 70, yet she seems at least 20 years younger. She is a petite woman, about five feet tall, but she has a larger presence, seeming to fill a room with her positive energy. When talking about her work, she jokes that “This old girl did something good.”

But it’s hard to think of her as old. She still scurries up precarious ladders to paint, still enthuses about her projects, her hands waving in the air as she speaks. Recently, on a trip to Rwanda, villagers gave her a chief’s staff, a sign of respect. They said she could use it when she gets old and needs help walking.

Born in China but raised in Taiwan, Yeh credits her parents with encouraging her creative side. “I owe everything to them,” she says.

Her childhood also set the stage for her later drive. Her father had three children from another marriage as well as the five children he had with Yeh’s mother. For years, the two families existed in totally separate worlds. Yeh talked about an unspoken pain she felt when she was growing up but could not quite name.

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