Q&A with Lily Yeh #10

As a popular keynote speaker at various events throughout the nation, what do you hope to inspire in your audience?

Barefoot Artists

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 more to inspire and light up the dormant pilot light in other people. So we can shine together to dispel the darkness of 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 lies our hope for the future.

-Lily Yeh

Q&A with Lily Yeh #9

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?

(from Lily’s Tedtalk) Some of the experiences are so profound that they changed the course of my life.

Barefoot Artists

In May 1989, I exhibited my work at the Central Academy of Fine Arts 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 strikers. They were university students who 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 in what they believe in through action. I realized that if I want my life count, being an artist is not just about making art. It is a way of life. It is about delivering the vision 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 hell-hole place called Korogocho. I visited it for the first time in 1994. I returned ten times in the following years.


Korogocho is a huge garbage dump situated on the outskirts of Nairobi. 150,000 people live there. Thousands try to eke out a living from the garbage dump in the center of the settlement.  People experience violence on so many levels –filth, the lack of clean water, air, opportunities, and the ravaging hunger. It is the violence of poverty and deprivation. With deep sadness, we are seeing that massive population live in similar dangerous situations in our turbulent world today.


“What was one to do in face of such devastation? For an artist, bring colors.


Following the steps of Christ, Father Alex Zanotelli not only helps the poor; he lives with the poor. His church, St. John’s Catholic Church, is located on the edge of the huge garbage dump. It is a place where hundreds of children and adults find comfort and refuge. That became our project site.


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. When we dared to place the freshly carved angels on top of an abandoned quarry structure, to guard and bless this endangered community, the spirit of the people soared.


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 join in.


Word spread. People heard that an artist from America was working with residents in the dumpsite community in Korogocho. 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. Father Alex commented, “It is important that we bear witness in places like Korogocho. It helps people to feel that they are not forgotten and they do not suffer in isolation.”


I visited Rwanda in 2004 and saw the mass grave in Rugerero in the Rubavu district. The grave was made of rough concrete under a rusty corrugated metal roof, undecorated and unmarked.


“I asked myself, “How could people heal when their loved ones were 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. The 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. I was startled to see that they not only paid tribute to the victims, but some had to open the caskets to look at the bleached bones. 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.”

-Lily Yeh

Q&A with Lily Yeh #8

How have either approaches to or expectations of creative placemaking changed over the past several decades?

Barefoot Artists

When I first started my work in inner city North Philadelphia 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 think of places well managed or in development. People rarely think of poor neighborhoods deserving beauty and art.


Then in 1970s, the conceptual artist and activist Joseph Beuys invented the term “social sculpture,” which is based on the idea that “that every aspect of life could be approached creatively and, as a result, everyone has the potential to be an artist.” (Wikipedia) His new approach to art and society has 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 of entering into an inner-city neighborhood and then stayed there for 18 years to create art with the people was not influenced by Joseph Beuys. It is a personal quest and came from my own culture and tradition, far away from the mainstream American art. There, in places on the fringe of mainstream society, I stay and continue to work today. Through our work that comes from our heart and through the process that honors all participants, we transform the fringe into our center. It is from that center I work wherever I go in the world.


When I was 15, Father took me to a teacher and I started learning traditional landscape painting. It became the love of my life. For seven years, from high school through college, I dedicated myself to the study of this tradition. It defined my identity and anchored my development as an artist.


Through studying Chinese landscape painting I came in contact with a special place, which the Chinese describe as the “dustless” world. “Dust” here refers to not the physical but the mental pollution of ignorance, greed, and ego hood that contaminate our mind and world. This dustless place is serene but dynamic, translucent in its rich spectrum of colors, and full in its emptiness. It is a place of trees, rivers, people, mountains and mist, and yet through them, it reveals a place of pristine beauty and mystery. This place has become my spiritual home.


I think my continued effort to transform abandoned spaces into art parks has to do with my longing to recreate this “dustless place.” The forgotten places allow one the freedom to explore and invent new art forms to achieve that goal.


It is amazing to see that “creative placemaking” has become a hot subject in the world of culture and art today. I think also 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 all can 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.

-Lily Yeh

Q&A with Lily Yeh #7

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?

Barefoot Artists

Communities in need have much to teach us. There is plenty of talent and capability in the so-called communities in need. If we can approach the people there in humility, we would have more success in gaining people’s trust and discovering the hidden treasures in the community in physical, emotional, and spiritual situation. That has been my experience.


Do projects with people in the community that empower them, honor their own talent and sensitivity, bring beauty and joy. This will lead to success.

-Lily Yeh

Q&A with Lily Yeh #6

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?

Barefoot Artists

I don’t usually go into a neighborhood to address the needs of a community. For me, examining a neighborhood through its deficits is like putting the wrong foot forward in entering the community there.


I entered and worked in inner city 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, people 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 opportunity that will improve their lives, helping the residents to express themselves so that their voices are heeded to. In the process of working together, we set up our programs to best address and tend to the many needs from the community. In many ways, the needs from the community shape our programs and give them purpose and meaning.

-Lily Yeh

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?

Barefoot Artists

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.

-Lily Yeh

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