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Change Agent

Lily Yeh finds beauty in broken places

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

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“My work is about finding what is broken and turning it into whole. This endeavor to make things whole may have derived from my life’s desire to bring the two families together into one,” she says.

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When Yeh was 15, she began studying traditional Chinese landscape painting. She loved it, but she recognized its main drawback: She was copying the works of her teachers and other masters, not creating her own. In her book Awakening Creativity, she compared it to having her feet bound.

Her creative awakening came after she moved to the United States in 1963 to study painting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. She found the art scene there to be wild and experimental.

“I felt transported from the wispy and idyllic art world of the past into the volatile and powerful new reality of the twentieth century,” she writes in Awakening Creativity

“Coming in contact with modern art in America shook to the core my understanding of art, its purpose, value, and relationship to society.”

So even though her teachers in Taiwan lamented her creative transformation, Yeh blossomed. She began teaching at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, eventually becoming a tenured professor.

Still, she says, her work didn’t finally mature, didn’t find its center, until 1986, when she began working on what would eventually become the Village of Arts and Humanities in a tough pocket of North Philadelphia.

Years later, people would tell her she saved the neighborhood. Yeh sees it differently: “I was the one being helped in the most profound way,” she says.

Vision Amid the Desolation

North Philadelphia is marred, not only by empty, overgrown lots and decrepit buildings, but also by drug dealing and more serious crimes.

While Yeh saw potential, the local children called her “the crazy Chinese lady.”

But when they saw her working on a lot in their neighborhood, they grew curious and drew closer. Soon she had them, and their once-suspicious parents, working on cleaning lots, creating mosaics and murals, building benches, and planting trees. A neighborhood transformation had begun. It would continue for years, eventually encompassing more than 200 lots.

“There she was, in this place that was so extraordinarily abandoned and desolate, but she had a vision,” says Jeremy Nowack, president and CEO of the philanthropic William Penn Foundation. “I always loved the metaphor that she used the existing rubble and abandonment to make something beautiful. She’s someone who has made the city into a canvas.”

The Village of Arts and Humanities eventually developed into a nonprofit organization with everything from after-school and theater programs to home refurbishment initiatives. Some see it as a national model for neighborhood revitalization.

Yeh loved the work. But after 18 years, she was ready for a new challenge.

“I wanted to bring the gift of beauty to true broken and traumatized places in the world,” she says. “That’s why I started Barefoot Artists.”

And while she’s no longer at the Village, she’s left behind her legacy.

“As Philadelphia deals with these hard economic times, many of us are looking at Lily’s projects to spark new ideas and find new ways that we can use art to empower communities, bring people together, and transform lives,” Kaiden says.

Art as Shared Prosperity

Barefoot Artists is a bare-bones operation. Whereas the Village at one time had a budget of more than $1 million, Barefoot Artists gets by on about $75,000. It is a largely volunteer organization. It has no office or paid staff.

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