“I have found that the broken spaces are my living canvas,” Yeh says. “In our brokenness, our hearts reach for beauty.”
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.
“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.
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.
“Although we are very small, we deliver so much,” Yeh says. “We collaborate and utilize the resources and expertise of volunteering individuals and organizations.”
Once, when Yeh was building the Village of Arts and Humanities, a neighborhood resident asked her why she was “pouring money into the ground” when there were real problems like AIDS and drug abuse in the community.
Yeh said it was a tough question, but a fair one. Her answer? “I can’t solve these huge social problems, but I can open up new possibilities and spaces where, through creativity and working together, we might come to new solutions.”
And Barefoot Artists has shown it’s not just about painting or art workshops. In Rwanda, it’s launched many innovative programs, including job training in sewing and basket weaving, and a Saturday arts program for children. It has also started a system of microcredit lending which provides community adults, especially women, with money to start their own businesses and to buy livestock.
When Yeh first went to Rwanda seven years ago, the Rugerero survivors’ village of 100 families where she focused her work only had two water taps and no electricity. She obtained grants and partnered with others, including Engineers Without Borders, to bring the village water, sanitation, and solar power.
“It isn’t just the beauty of the artwork,” she says. “It really is a shared prosperity. Not the Wall Street prosperity, not the capitalist prosperity but simply a shared prosperity for all villagers.”
The Palestine trip, Yeh said, was one of the most challenging projects she’s ever undertaken. There were political tensions beyond her control. At one point, she worried about completing her mission.
Yet she persevered. And she left behind a transformative piece of art, covering one wall outside a girls’ school with a mural that so moved residents that they could only say, “Beautiful, beautiful” as they beheld it. The design features an ancient olive tree bursting with huge flowers surrounded by doves of peace in a star-filled night sky. It was inspired by the stories and images that emerged from the workshops she had with residents. Yeh completed the painting with the help of locals and volunteers.
“It’s a new kind of empowerment. People’s minds are opened to new possibilities and affirmation,” Yeh says.
She worked with a local leader and left behind resources so that the new creative energy released in the refugee camp can continue to inspire people to take positive action in their struggle for justice and human dignity. Already, others have requested that someone beautify their buildings – and their lives – with the bright colors brought by Lily Yeh.
“When I see people’s lives transformed for the better, it gives me deep fulfillment,” she says. “It makes my life meaningful.”
• Natalie Pompilio wrote this article for The YES! Breakthrough 15, the Winter 2012 issue of YES! Magazine. Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She is the co-author of "More Philadelphia Murals and the Stories They Tell" (Temple University Press, 2008) and her work appeared in "Best Newspaper Writing 2006" (Poynter Institute).
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