Lily Yeh was born in southwestern China in the province of Guizhou, one of China's most diverse territories. The region is relatively undeveloped economically, but rich in natural and cultural resources. Yeh, who was raised in Taiwan and moved to the United States in the early 1960s, has dedicated more than 30 years of her life to urban alchemy. Her lifework is to use art as a vehicle and promote imagination and collaboration as tools to transform decay into vitality; and trauma and despair into hope and joy. Alongside members of the neighborhoods and villages in which she works, Yeh implements projects that foster community empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote economic development, and preserve indigenous art and culture.
Yeh studied classical Chinese painting during her formative years growing up in Taiwan. She received her Bachelor of the Arts (BA) degree from National Taiwan University in 1963. Later that same year, Yeh migrated to the United States to attend the University of Pennsylvania. She graduated from the private Ivy League university with her Master of Fine Arts (MFA) degree in 1966.
Yeh worked as a studio artist and in academia after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania. She served as an Instructor of Art History at West Chester University for two years before pivoting to an Assistant Professor role, and eventually one of a tenured Professor, at The University of the Arts in Philadelphia. Yeh didn't embark upon her first public art project until 1986, during which she founded The Village of Arts and Humanities, an organization rooted in artist-facilitated community building.
In 2002, Yeh founded Barefoot Artists, a non-profit organization that aims to train and empower local residents, organize communities, and take action for a more compassionate, just, and sustainable future. The organization, which is made up of a network of volunteers, travels to international destinations and uses art to advance initiatives focused on imporving health, education, and economic development. The name is derivative of the barefoot doctor system, set up by Mao Zedong in 1960s China, which gave farmers basic medical training to bring health care into rural areas.
Yeh, who now travels the world to give compelling presentations about the transformative power of art, is the keynote speaker for State of the Arts 2017, which will be held on August 30th. The luncheon portion of the event will start at 11:30 AM and will be held at the Jesse Ball duPont Center. Tickets for the event can be purchased through the Cultural Council's website. In 2014, Yeh was the subject of a documentary titled "The Barefoot Artist." The film explores the methods and motivations of her revolutionary work. Yeh also released a book titled "Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms." Signed copies of the book will be available for sale during State of the Arts.
Hopefully you will join us at State of the Arts after reading about Yeh and her incredibly inspiring career as well as her unwavering dedication to the transformative power of the arts. Additionally, I hope that after you finish reading this, you take a moment to reflect on Jacksonville and our many deserving neighborhoods that could benefit from arts initiatives that foster community identity, empower residents that live within, and address issues of justice, equality, and access to resources that support daily life.
10 Questions with Lily Yeh
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
When I start a new project, I visit the site, learn its history, listen to people’s stories, and get a feel for the space. If the circumstance allows, I then do a presentation about the transformative power of art and my work. I do this to show what is possible when people work together in a nurturing and creative environment.
If the circumstance does not allow for this, such as when I first started my work in North Philadelphia or when I worked in a genocide survivors village in Rugerero, Rwanda, I simply start with a creative activity, such as painting a mural or building sculptures. But I always invite people to participate in the process and be a part of the creativity. That is the beginning of building a fun and trusting relationship.
What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts?
I learned that I am a peculiar kind of artist. Abandoned places are my canvases and people’s stories form a part of my palette. People’s talent and imagination become the tools in my collaborative art-making process, through which healing and transformation take place.
I don’t have a big studio and I don’t show my work in galleries. But rather, I create my work on the walls and in the streets of some of the world’s most challenged and traumatized places. More often than not, I co-create with the people who live in the places where I create art. Their artistic sensitivity, stories, experiences, and their physical participation help to shape the outcome of the work, which is public in nature. In the end, these public art pieces all belong to the communities of people who participated.
How do you define success in what you do?
During my 18-year sojourn at the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, I witnessed many people's lives transform through their participation of our various programs, which took form in building parks, renovating houses, public art making, education, theater, and job training.
I always try to create beauty in the work I do alongside the community. Beauty comforts and brings dignity. I observed that, through being a part of creative activation projects, people who were victims of drug addiction, street or home violence, or imprisonment have evolved into successful mosaic artists, filmmakers, builders, educators, performers, and entrepreneurs. Many of the young people in our programs became college graduates, professionals, and responsible citizens.
In the unfolding of the ten-year Rwanda Healing Project in Rugerero, Rwanda, I saw how the lives of genocide survivors and the Twa, the most discriminated and oppressed minority group, transformed from destitution and despair to that of dignity and self-sustaining work with hope for the future. To me, that is success.
When the work I do inspires other people to take action and to make a difference, that also spells success for me.
What prompted you to shift your focus away from your studio work and instead focus on how art can be used to address the greater needs of a community?
I didn’t just decide to shift from being a studio artist into a social activist to make art for the greater good of the society. When I was a studio artist, I felt something was missing in my life. This led me searching. In 1986 I was invited by the late dancer and choreographer Arthur Hall to build an art park on a small abandoned lot next to his building in inner city North Philadelphia. That invitation changed my life.
Although I was apprehensive and full of fear, I decided to give it a try. Our team was composed of a studio artist (me), children from the street, and one unemployed adult, Joseph Williams, who was nicknamed JoJo. We were a group of novices and through the process of working together, trying to do something meaningful for the place and with our time together, something powerful began to take place.
In this broken place, no one paid us any attention. Since no one really knew the right way to make an art park, we felt free to experiment and explore. A sense of order and purpose gradually emerged from chaos and random activities. At the end of our two months’ effort, a sense of place began to announce its presence.
I had not planned to return. But something deep in the work experience got hold of me. I realized that this neglected empty space is filled with potent possibilities. The enthusiasm from the children, the talent and unpredictability of JoJo, and the freedom to experiment and to make mistakes challenged my curiosity and energized my being. I realized that this “bad land” is actually a treasure land, rich in its history and deep in its pain. But, Taoism taught me that the place most broken and forsaken is the most ready for transformation. I had so much to learn from that place and the residents in the neighborhood.
My journey was so rewarding that I eventually quit my tenured professorship at the University of the Arts so that I could devote my time to pursue a passion, to bring beauty and art to places broken in the world.
After co-founding the Village of Arts and Humanities in 1986, how did you prioritize the initiatives of the organization and did capacity limitations ever shape where or how you implemented a project?
Where I worked in North Philadelphia contained a vast number of abandoned lots and houses. This, combined with me being a visual artist who was interested in transforming abandoned lots into colorful parks and gardens, made park building the backbone of our activities for many years. Also, in our park building project, we transformed dilapidation into order and beauty, which made our work and our forgotten neighborhood visible. Through manifesting our determination and innovative talent, the project brought us resources and recognition, which empowered us to continue.
Because our work was about community building through the arts, our activities expanded to include various programs that addressed community needs, such as after school education, youth theater, building renovation, job training for adults, cultivating vegetable gardens and a tree farm, collaboration with neighborhood public schools, NA meetings, and much more. Funding for arts programs are always very limited. We were able to launch so many different and effective programs because we built an organic structure that discovered and helped manifest local talents, conserve and recycle resources, leverage our newly established methodologies and inventiveness, utilize donations and talent, and foster goodwill.
But, if we had proper resources, we could have accomplished so much more. For example, we renovated several abandoned buildings on our block to host entrepreneurial workshops and visiting artists. But most of our buildings required constant bandaged repairs. My dream was to turn the ten-block neighborhood area into a unique urban environment filled with alluring parks, gardens, and small urban farms.
But we have to conform to the requirements from our various funding sources and do our best to continue to live our mission and be true to our value and purpose. I think we delivered. Today, ten years after I left the Village, it continues to be a powerful presence in the neighborhood that guides and inspires.
With more than 30 years of experience in leveraging the transformative power of the arts, what do you feel are effective methods for identifying the needs of a community and building trust within that community?
I don’t usually go into a neighborhood to address the needs of a community. For me, examining a neighborhood through its deficits is putting the wrong foot forward when entering the community.
I entered and worked in North Philadelphia because I was invited. Sensing the unusual and potent opportunity to do something positive and innovative compelled me to continue. When the work honors people’s sensitivity and memory, welcomes people’s participation, and helps manifest their talent and ability, the people in the community will embrace it. When people see that their effort turned abandonment into form and beauty then they feel empowered and proud. When the process is open, inclusive, nurturing, and joyful, people begin to open their hearts. That is how we gain people’s trust.
We also gain the trust from the community by listening to them, working with them, creating opportunities that will improve their lives, and by helping the residents to express themselves so that their voices are heeded too. In the process of working together, we set up our programs to best address and tend to the many needs of the community. In many ways, the community's needs shaped our programs and gave them purpose and meaning.
What words of advice do you offer to artists or organizations who are interested in expanding the reach of their work to communities in need?
There is plenty of talent and capability in the so-called "communities in need," and they have much to teach us. If we can approach the people there in humility, then we can have more success in gaining people’s trust and discovering the hidden physical, emotional, and spiritual treasures within the community. That has been my experience.
Do projects with people in the community that empower them, honor their own talent and sensitivity, and bring beauty and joy. This will lead to success.
How have you seen perceptions related to community building and creative placemaking change?
When I first started my work 30 years ago, the word “community” was not so much in the awareness of the mainstream, be it in the arts, academic, governmental, or social groups. When discussing designs for public spaces, people often thought of places well managed or in development. People rarely thought of poor neighborhoods deserving beauty and art.
Then in the 1970s, the conceptual artist and activist Joseph Beuys invented the term “social sculpture,” which is based on the idea that “every aspect of life could be approached creatively and, as a result, everyone has the potential to be an artist.” His new approach to art and society impacted a whole generation of artists. Many began to bring or create art in disenfranchised neighborhoods not frequented by art.
I have to say that my impulse to enter into an inner city neighborhood, and then staying there for 18 years, to create art with the people was not influenced by Beuys. It was a personal quest and came from my own culture and tradition. There, in places on the fringe of mainstream society, I stay and continue to work today. Through work that comes from the heart, and through a process that honors all participants, we transform the fringe into our center. It is from that center that I work, wherever I go in the world.
It is amazing to see that “creative placemaking” has become a hot subject in today's world of art and culture, as well as in the fields of politics and economic development. Many universities and colleges contain “community-based art” course, in which students can study and do hands-on projects.
I do believe that art is the most accessible and effective tool to transform society. Every person is born with the innate gift of creativity and imagination. When empowered, we can all rise and shine with our talent and capability. When this awakened collective energy is guided by kindness and compassion, it will lead us to build a more just and sustainable world.
How has your life or creative process been impacted by the personal stories of those with whom you work and the communities you have served?
Some of the experiences are so profound that they changed the course of my life.
In May 1989, I exhibited my work at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. I had the privilege to witness the student-led democracy movement unfolding at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The heart of this momentous event was the hunger strikes. University students decided to put their lives on the line to have their voices heard. They wanted democracy for China. Many had written their last wills.
I was struck by the power of the hunger strikers. Their simple actions of sitting and refusing food set the whole nation on fire. I realized that the power of these students came from their utter dedication to what they believed in. I realized that if I want my life to count, being an artist is not just about making art. It is a way of life. It is about delivering the vision that one is given and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.
I was transformed by my experience at the Village of Arts and Humanities. I went through another transformative experience in a place called Korogocho, a huge garbage dump situated on the outskirts of Nairobi. I visited there for the first time in 1994. I returned ten times in the following years.
150,000 people live in Korogocho. Thousands try to eke out a living from the garbage dump in the center of the settlement. People experience poverty and deprivation on so many levels – filth, the lack of clean water, polluted air, limited opportunities, and ravaging hunger. What was one to do in face of such devastation? As an artist, I chose to bring color.
No one could have imagined that beauty could exist in such a place, including me. But as our brightly colored images emerged, the mood in the community began to change. The spirit of the people soared when we dared to place the freshly carved angels on top of an abandoned quarry structure.
Creating art in forlorn and forsaken places is like making fire in the frozen darkness of a winter’s night. It brings light, warmth, hope, and it beckons people to be near it.
Word spread. People heard that an artist from America was working with residents in the dumpsite. At the dedication, over a thousand people attended. Our honored guests included members from various embassies, the Kenyan government, representatives from private foundations, and universities. Most of them had never set foot in this pain-inflicted community. To our surprise, American Ambassador Aurelia Brazeal appeared in person to honor the occasion.
On that day I felt the immense power of art. Through our collaborative action in creating beauty, we empowered ourselves to push open the weighty hell gate of the vast slum so that fresh air and sunlight poured in.
I visited Rwanda in 2004 and saw the mass grave in Rugerero, located in the Rubavu district. The grave was made of rough concrete under a rusty corrugated metal roof - undecorated and unmarked. I asked myself, “How can people heal when their loved ones are buried in such a place?” A survivor told me, ”Every time I passed there my heart broke. It was like killing us twice.” I wanted to bring the concept of beauty into the design of the memorial.
Survivors asked me to construct a bone chamber so that their loved ones could be buried properly. The idea frightened me. Bones are intimately connected to the national psyche of terror and profound sorrow. But together we managed. When the chamber became too moist for the bones, we tiled the whole surface of the monument to keep it dry. Low tech, but highly effective.
How appropriate that it was the making of the mosaics that helped us to solve the problem! In this grief-stricken community, through working together with the broken tiles, piece-by-piece, people began to transform their suffering and despair into hope and joy.
On April 7, 2009, the day of the national mourning, thousands of people walked for miles in a somber procession to the genocide memorial. Folks lined up to enter the bone chamber. Fifteen years later, it was still too much to bear. But, somehow through the piercing pains and howls, healing began. Survivors said to us, “When we see beauty we see hope. Our loved ones can come home now in honor and dignity.”
Art and beauty heal.
As a popular keynote speaker at various events throughout the nation, what do you hope to inspire in your audience?
I believe that we all have the inborn gifts of creativity and imagination. When we manifest that inborn talent, it lights up like a torch. My role as an artist is not only to nurture and manifest my own creativity but to also inspire and light up the dormant pilot light in other people. We can shine together to dispel greed, selfishness, ignorance, and pride that is spreading darkness and falsehood in our world
I share my experience through presentations to show that each person’s action does matter and we all can make a difference in the world. I hope to inspire and move people to action. There rests our hope for the future.