‘We’re still here:’ Artists seek to restore pride, color in Blackfeet lives
HEART BUTTE – There’s a beauty in this Blackfeet reservation town that a sunrise on the Rocky Mountain Front can only match.
It has to do with the proud, fierce and buffalo-rich lords of the plains, their horses and guns and a way of life that once seemed like it would last forever.
But it has to do too with terrible things – smallpox infestations, a massacre on the Marias in 1870, the Starvation Winter of 1883-84, the devastating flood of 1964, the fire that forced evacuation of Heart Butte just two summers ago.
And it has to do with Heart Butte itself, rising stark behind Heart Butte School but hidden from the rest of town. With enough prompting, Jeremiah Hinkle will tell you why.
An soft-spoken high school junior, Hinkle was thinking about that very thing as he rode the bus to school last week at daybreak.
“I don’t really think about what happened on the mountain,” said Hinkle, who sports glasses, a mustache and a goatee. “It’s more a respect for the mountain, a respect for nature.”
In this century the Southern Pikunni huddle here in wooden houses, at a time of year when their ancestors would have been settling in for the winter on the Teton River around Choteau. The arctic winds don’t blow so hard down there.
“A lot of the culture we had came from nature,” Hinkle said. “We learned how to hunt like a wolf, watched how they hunt together in a pack as a team. We got our shelter from buffalo. We learned how to be sly from the coyote.
“That respect for nature. … It can be powerful. It can be peaceful.”
Those are words to cling to for Sally Thompson and Lily Yeh.
Thompson is an anthropologist from Missoula who has spent much of the past 30 years studying the rich textures of Blackfeet society. She’s convinced that the best way to come to grips with the poverty, substance abuse and hopelessness so prevalent on the reservation is for the people themselves to come to grips with that proud and terrible past.
Yeh is all in.
The diminutive artist was born in China but has spent most of her life in the United States, when she’s not globe-trotting to some of the most destitute and broken outposts in the world. She is a global superstar at what she does, helping communities transform the bleak and ugly into monuments of color and beauty.
And Yeh, who lives in Philadelphia, has the Blackfeet Reservation firmly in her sights.
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A Vision for Equitable Community Development
From The American Society of Landscape Architects website:
In the 1960s, amid rampant gang violence, drug crime, and white flight, Arthur Hall, a dancer and choreographer, created the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center in the poor and mostly African American community of Fairchild-Hartranft in north Philadelphia. The center successfully taught black culture, art, dance, and music in a safe space for decades. Then, in the 1980s, Lily Yeh, an art professor at the Philadelphia School of Fine Arts, got involved and grew the center into a neighborhood arts and cultural hub, the internationally-renowned Village of Arts & Humanities, which now teaches over 400 local students art, advocacy, and leadership after school every day.
Aviva Kapust, the current executive director of the Village, gave a tour of the project during the Trust for Public Land’s recent conference called the Nature of Communities. As we spent the morning walking through the network of 15 parks and plazas, which total some 15,000 square feet across multiple city blocks, Kapust explained that the Village’s public spaces have become “designated safe zones in the neighborhood.” While there is still high levels of crime in this part of Germantown, “it doesn’t happen here.” And while nearby painted houses are often “tagged” by local artists, who leave their unique signature, the murals that oversee the public spaces never are.
Yeh and the surrounding community slowly transformed vacant lots into public parks and plazas. Kapust said Yeh had no idea how to create a park, so she engaged the neighborhood kids, who then brought in their families. “Together, they undertook a process of co-creation,” learning as they went how to plant trees, mold cement benches, set sidewalks, create mosaics — building community all the while.
Kapust believes the space works so well because it “imports symbols from other cultures and projects then back out again.”
But the imagery Yeh selected also purposefully “signals guardianship.” Angels oversee pathways; spirit animals watch over the public spaces. “There is an intentional mesh of spiritual messages into something universal.”
Yeh just started building these spaces without city government permission, but now they actually own the parks and plazas, which brings its own set of challenges, including financial liability. And simply maintaining the spaces — not developing them — costs some $70,000 per year.
Meditation Park, which was created in the early 90s, is something Gaudi would have loved. A river is formed through mosaic tiles. Colors reflect the Islamic and West African cultures found in the neighborhood. James “Big Man” Maxton, a former drug addict, became the village’s long-time operations director and mosaic artist. The result of his work and many other volunteers is a “beautiful plaza, like something you would happen upon in Barcelona.”
A few doors down, Magical Garden is in the process of being revamped as a “natural habitat for urban wildlife.” Annuals are being replaced with perennials, and there will be natural stormwater management systems. Next door is a quarter-acre urban farm with permaculture plots, a solar-powered aquaponic system, and outdoor pizza oven, where culinary education and demonstrations are held.
Memorial Park, once a vacant lot, honors those who have died in the neighborhood to drug violence or addiction or lost their lives in the Vietnam War. The now-shuttered neighborhood high school had the highest number of alumni to die in Vietnam than any other school — some 64 students. Dream totems, made with a West African artist, invite visitors to remember.
Interestingly, not all the parks have been successful. Some of the ones farthest away from the village center are underused. Lion’s Park, for example, may be divested as it has become an “overgrown hazard,” said Kapust.
As gentrification creeps north, can there be a positive future for this unique arts and cultural neighborhood? Kapust says the Village is looking 25-30 years ahead and trying to figure out whether they should use “arts and culture to generate community economic development, or aim for community economic development, using arts as a tool; they are two separate things.” She added that whatever plays out, “we want to keep the needs of the people in this neighborhood at the forefront.”
Kapust wants to reach out to equitable developers as well, taking them a vision and plan for maintaining the character of the community. “The theory is 100 families is a manageable group. We could support those 100 families with jobs and their own homes for 100 years.” Those 100 families, who would take up about 5 blocks, can then maintain the neighborhood culture, support local shops, and create leverage. “It’s basically socialism,” Kapust laughed, or at least an expanded neighborhood cooperative. To make this happen, a workable financing model needs to be connected to the right non-profit developer.
Lessons from Palestine On Walls, Cultural Resistance, and the Artistry of Lily Yeh
BY ARIEL BLETH
The small Palestinian village of Al- Aqaba, home to 300 inhabitants, lies atop a rocky ridge in northern West Bank. Its large, striking minaret punctures an otherwise earth- bound, rugged geography, and the Jordan Valley fans out to the east like a desert mirage. Waves of brown, orange, and red blur into one another — a strik-ing view from the three- tiered scaffolding that precariously hugged the wall of the village’s most prominent building in the spring of 2015. Up and down the rickety structure for the better part of a week, Philadelphia- based artist Lily Yeh gave most of her attention to the aqua- colored expanse in front of her and the task of painting a mural on the twenty- five- foot wall…
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The Visionary Activist Radio Show
Caroline Casey’s Visionary Activist Radio Show is a constantly evolving experiment in Radio Magic. Her show provides the Mythological News, the Themes of Now, and has as guests anyone with a piece of the puzzle for Dreaming, Conjuring and Implementing a more lovingly ingenious world.
Listen to Caroline’s interview with Lily Yeh from April 10, 2014.
Walking Into Darkness To Create The Dustless World
Lily Yeh was interviewed by HsiuChih Lo for the October 2013 issue of Art World 279, an art magazine published in Shanghai, China.
Read The Chinese Interview
Live At Daybreak
Lily Yeh was interviewed on TMJ4’s Live At Daybreak on January 11, 2014 about how art can change communities and improve lives around the world. The interview was in conjunction with an art workshop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and a screening of The Barefoot Artist documentary at Fox Bay Cinema.