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

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