Q&A with Lily Yeh #5
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?
Inner city where I worked in North Philadelphia contained a vast number of abandoned lots and houses. This combined with me being a visual artist who is interested in transforming abandonment 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 that made our work and our forgotten neighborhood visible. Manifesting our determination and innovative talent, the project brought us resources and recognition, which empowered us to continue.
Because our work is about community building through the arts, our activities expanded to include various programs to address community needs, such as after school education, youth theater, building renovation, job training for adults, cultivating vegetable gardens and a tree farm, collaborating with neighborhood public schools, NA meetings, and many more. Funding for arts programs are always very limited. We are able to launch so many different and effective programs is because we build an organic structure that discover and help manifest local talents, conserve and recycle resources, leverage our newly established methodology, inventiveness, and utilize donations and the talent and good will from numerous volunteers.
But if with proper resources, we could have accomplished so much more. For example, renovated several abandoned buildings on our block to host entrepreneurial workshops and visiting artists. We would have renovated our main educational building to avoid 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, fourteen years after I left the Village, it continues to be a powerful presence in the neighborhood that guides and inspires.
Q&A with Lily Yeh #4
Prior to 1986 you worked as a studio artist. 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. It led me searching. In 1986 I was invited by the late dancer and choreographer Arthur Hall to build an art Park on his small abandoned lot next to his building in inner city North Philadelphia. That changed my life.
Although I was apprehensive and full of fear, I decided to give it a try. Through the process of a group of novices working together trying to do something meaningful for the place and our time together, something powerful began to take place. Our team was composed of a studio artist, children from the street, and one unemployed adult Joseph Williams, nicknamed JoJo. In this broken place, no one paid us attention. Since no one really knew the right way, 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 make itself felt.
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 mistake have increased 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 have so much to learn from this place and the residents in the neighborhood.
My journey has been so rewarding that I eventually quit my tenured professorship at the University of the Arts so that I can devote full time to pursue my passion, to bring beauty and art to places broken in the world.
Q&A with Lily Yeh #3
How do you define success in what you do?
Rwanda residents working together on a community art project in the Rugerero Survivors Village
During my 18-year sojourn at the Village of Arts and Humanities in inner city North Philadelphia, I witnessed the transformation of many people’s lives through their participation of our various programs in park building, house renovation, public art making, education, theater and job training.
We always try to create beauty in the work we do. Beauty comforts and brings dignity. I observed that people who were victims of drug addiction, street or home violence, and 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 working citizens.
In the unfolding of the ten-year Rwanda Healing Project in Rugerero, Rwanda, I saw how the lives of the genocide survivors and the Twa, the most discriminated and oppressed minority, transformed from destitution and despair to that of dignity and self-sustaining work with hope in the future. That means success to me.
When the work I do inspires other people to take action to make a difference, that also spells success for me.
Q&A with Lily Yeh #2
What have you learned about yourself through your career in the arts?
Lily working with residents in the Rugerero Survivors Village, Rwanda on a mural for the local elementary school
I learned that I am a peculiar kind of artist. I don’t have a big studio and I don’t so much 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 people living in the places where I create art. Their artistic sensitivity, stories, experiences, and their physical participation shape the outcome of the public work we create together. At the end, these public art pieces all belong to the communities where people participated.
I learned that abandoned places are my canvases; people’s stories form a part of my palette. People’s talent and imagination become the tools in my collaborative creative art-making process, through which healing and transformation take place.
Q&A with Lily Yeh #1
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
Barefoot Artists team and volunteers from Nablus working together at Balata Refugee Camp, Palestine 2014
When I get a new project, I would usually visit the site, learn of the history, listen to people’s stories whenever possible, and feel the space. If the circumstance allows, I would conduct a presentation about the transformative power of art in my work to show what is possible when people work together in a nurturing and creative environment.
If the circumstance does not allow it, such as when I first started my work in inner city North Philadelphia, or in a genocide survivors village in Rugerero, Rwanda, I simply started some art activity like painting a mural or build some sculptures. But always, I would invite people to participate in the creative action. That is the beginning of building a fun and trusting relationship.
Phase III: the Installation of “Heaven, Earth, & Four Guardians”
The imagination and the rendering skills of the students so impressed Lily Yeh that she incorporated their works directly into the large mosaic floor design she created for the school campus.
NEW Book by Lily Yeh That Aim to Move You
144 pages. 9.25″ (h) x 7.5″ (w) x .25″ (d)
“Surviving Genocide: the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi”
By Susan Viguers & Lily Yeh
Published by Shandy Press & Barefoot Artists, 2017
The book and the project itself demonstrate the power of art in the service of healing, testimony and community.
Surviving Genocide immerses you in the stories of two Rwandans who as small children experienced the 1994 Genocide; it tells of the horrific tragedy each survived, the courage necessary for surviving, and the humanity they embody. Their stories are framed by two chapters chronicling the transformation, in the Rugerero Survivors’ Village, of a concrete burial slab into a powerful Genocide Memorial with its bone chamber, designed by Lily Yeh and built by the villagers. An essential theme of the book is the importance of the dead for the living, of honoring the dead, of remembrance. The book is not limited to the literature of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide; it belongs to the world as part of the collective human experience.
Surviving Genocide is not a conventional book; it evokes its world through images (photographs, drawings, paintings, pattern, and color) as well as words; the text itself is visually choreographed.
The “Obatala & the Tree Goddess” Mural
The material in the book stems from Lily Yeh’s multifaceted Rwandan Healing Project under the auspices of Barefoot Artists. That Project included, among other things, drawing and storytelling workshops, from which the book draws. Susan Viguers conceived and designed the book, incorporating drawings and paintings by Lily Yeh.
Lily is an internationally celebrated artist who, as founder and executive director of the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia from 1968 to 2004, helped create a national model in creative place-making and community building through the arts. In 2002, Yeh pursued her work internationally, founding Barefoot Artists, Inc., to bring the transformative power of art to impoverished communities in multiple countries (including Kenya, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Rwanda, China, Taiwan, Ecuador, Syria, Republic of Georgia, Haiti, Germany, Palestine, and the United States) through participatory, multifaceted projects.
For much of her life, Susan Viguers taught literature, directed the University Writing Program at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, and published scholarly articles, creative nonfiction and poetry. Her discovery of printmaking and book structure and her eventual move from the Liberal Arts Division to the university’s College of Art and Design was a radical late middle-age change. For nine years she directed the university’s MFA Book Arts/Printmaking program. Her artist books have been in numerous exhibitions and have been collected in over 50 public institution’s Special Collections.
For purchase contact: Susan Viguers/Shandy Press email@example.com.
A Tribute to the Village of Arts & Humanities
Celebrating the 30th anniversary of The Village, Lily Yeh designed this mural to commemorate the legacy of renowned artists Arthur Hall and Barbara Bullock.
The late Arthur Hall was an internationally eminent choreographer, dancer, and the founder of the Arthur Hall Afro-American Dance Ensemble and the Ile-Ife Black Humanitarian Center in North Philadelphia.
“Arthur Hall’s work has transformed many people’s lives, including my own, when he invited me to create an art park on his abandoned lot 30 years ago. The humble summer project with children evolved into the Village of Arts and Humanities. He showed me the power of art and creative action. I remain forever grateful.”
– Lily Yeh
Barbara Bullock is a highly acclaimed Philadelphia-based artist and teacher. She has received numerous prestigious regional and national awards.
“Forging together the vitality from African art, the inventiveness of contemporary art, with her unique sensitivity and humor, Barbara creates images filled with power and magic. Her ‘tree goddess’ has so moved me that I feel compelled to revive it. To me, the goddess personifies the beauty and fecundity of the place.”
– Lily Yeh
The figure swaying in an ample white robe on the left commemorates Arthur Hall’s creation and performance as Obatala in his signature theater piece of the same title. Obatala embodies the creative spirit, purity, and moral righteousness of the Yoruba people of Nigeria.
We heartily congratulate the Village’s recent prestigious award from ArtPlace America. It is one of the 23 selected from 1,000 applicants nationally.
Methodology – Creative Direction
An email popped up in the Barefoot Artist’s inbox, asking for guidance on how to cultivate international community involvement in a mural project that will tackle two, blank New York garages (the canvas).
What shall we paint?
What subjects are of interest to the community?
How do I gather the artists?’
What images can I propose or how to solicit stories from them to be painted?
Lily Yeh, founder of the Barefoot Artists Organization responded with “When I am in that situation not knowing what to design, I usually go to the people and ask them what would they like to see on the wall. I think you can start with a design workshop, prepare art materials and ask the participants what they would like to see on the wall. Pin up their works and let them discuss and come up with ideas. Once they agree on something, maybe they can help you design the wall. You can have artists on hand to help and guide. This should be a fun and participatory process that will keep people interested and engaged.”
This situation is similar a phase of the Rwanda Healing Project. The residents in Rugerero Twa village wanted help from Barefoot Artists to build an art house to exhibit their pottery. With no ideas on what to design for the village, a workshop was set up where men, women, and children in separate groups created design reflecting their aspirations. It turned out that what they desired was not just an art house but an art complex that included a high firing communal kiln, roofed workshop space, storage, exhibition gallery, toilets, and a shower. That was the beginning of how Rugerero Pottery compound came into being.
Ile Ife Mural’s 30th Anniversary
Cheers to nostalgia!
The Village of Arts and Humanities (The Village) has been building community-art relations in Philadelphia, PA for over 30 years! The Village is a multifaceted arts organization dedicated to community building through the arts.
In 1986 Lily Yeh began the design and painted a three-story mural “Ile Ife Guardian Mural” with a mythic owl beaming rainbow colored light and life to plants, fish, and animals under its gigantic wings.
The Village today, continues to be a vibrant force of creativity and a deep sense of rootedness.
More information about The Village can be found here.
Ile Ife Park site at 10th St & Germantown Ave in 1986
The Village today, continues to be a presence of creativity and jubilance