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“Awakening Creativity” workshop for residents of An Kang Public Housing Project (2013)

Located on the outskirts of Taipei, the An Kang neighborhood has deteriorated due to the concentration of low-income residents. A number of negative things have been manifesting in this community—poverty, crime, little employment opportunities, drugs, violence, and the lack of trust of neighbors.

The city intends to renovate and expand the An Kang Housing into a mixed income residential area. It commissioned the renowned Graduate Institute of Building and Planning of National Taiwan University to head the reconstruction of the Project.

The Institute concerns itself not only with architecture and urban planning aspects of the project, but also the quality of life and self-esteem issues of the residents. Desiring their participation in the project development process, the Institute invited Lily Yeh to help. In other words, the Institute wants to launch a community-based public art project that empowers and engages residents’ creativity.

Yeh started the process by conducting “awakening creativity” workshops in which she aimed to engage, inspire, and empower the residents to articulate their dreams and aspirations through creating images.

“I conducted a workshop at a primary school in the community with fifteen students who reside in An Kang housing, and also some elderly residents. The first thing I usually do with a new group is to show slides of my work for inspiration. I bring lots of art supplies and invite people to imagine and paint. I ask them to express what they want to see in their environment. What is beautiful in their minds? They responded by painting lovely jewels, multi story buildings, butterflies, clouds and flowers. Their images were full of patterns and color.”

It wasn’t easy conducting a workshop with such a mixed group – boys, girls, adults, and the elderly. At the beginning, we had a dozen of boys and girls and two older residents. There were a group of four girls who talked and laughed loudly together with little concern for the others. Their energy dominated the room. Fortunately the boys were not intimidated. They became quite engaged in expressing themselves. The older participants provided some calm and stability in the workshop.

During the second day of the workshop, we lost the boys to a soccer game. But a few others drifted in. The four girls continued to be so engaged with each others that they were rather oblivious to the other participants. During an exercise, I managed to separate them into different groups so that they could concentrate on the workshop better.

Conducting workshop in a community setting, one needs to keep it open and fluid. The challenge is how to keep the process on course to reach the desired results in a rather unpredictable environment and keep the atmosphere relaxed, flexible, and fun. The key is to keep the program going despite interruptions. Fill the workshop with positive energy through appreciation and encouragement of all participants. Don’t impose one’s own sensitivity on that of the participants. Support them at all times and guide them when they feel receptive.

Bao Zhu, Precious Pearl, one of the four girls, is quite strong willed. She knew what she wanted. When we were placing all the jars of pigments on the table, so many bright and energizing colors, she urgently grabbed only one color, white. I was intrigued that why there seemed to be such an urgency? Why would she hold it tight in her hand and close to her chest?

Then we placed a stack of colorful construction paper on the table. Again with urgency, she picked one particular color, black. Using white and light yellow cray pods, she drew dots the paper. She tried to spread the colors by smudging the dots. She shared with a friend that, “My parents often leave me home alone, in the dark, I am always afraid, I’m always trying to find light.”

During the next exercise she sketched a tree with some branches on another piece of black paper. I sensed the restlessness in her motion, kind of looking for direction. I told her how much I appreciated the composition and the structure of the tree. Why not turn the random repetitive lines and smudges into branches and leaves? I also showed her that the leaves don’t all have to be the same color. It can have variations. So kind of effortlessly I shared with her my understanding of color, depth, space and rendering. Then her energy changed from agitation to focus and calm. She painted her tree in white with leaves in two shades of greens. Then boldly, she painted the whole background in black, on which she placed white dots all over the surface. She has succeeded in turning her fear into a soothing image of a tree of life standing in a light speckled night.

My goal in the workshop was for people to imagine and design their own environment. To stimulate their imagination, I shared with them the photos of brightly painted homes and villages from Saudi Arabia, where desert sand dominates most of the land. With imagination, one can live in very colorful places even when they are situated in the dreary and desert-like environment.

I was surprised to see the variety of the designs emerging from the workshop. Even the simple act of creating patterns shows such differences in people’s sensitivity and temperaments.

The making of repetitive patterns must felt soothing to people because the room became very quiet. The using of bright colors turned many designs joyful and lively. Everyone contributed to the visual vocabulary to the workshop; everyone looked at and appreciated each other’s works. The process began to turn the random participants into a team, sharing and supporting each other’s creativity.

On the third day, I asked the participants to imagine and design different sections of the An Kang housing. I provided the participants with the black and white pictures of the An Kang building facades and I said, “Now decorate the buildings as you see fit.” They came up with beautiful themes and patterns, including waves, the ocean, trees, rainbows, and many more. They told me, “We imagine An Kang to become a special place, a place full of rainbow colors.”


Surveying the An Kang Housing project on the outskirts of Taipei, 2013

To inspire participants, Lily shares photos of brightly painted environments in Saudi Arabia.

Lily suggests, “Draw images that you would like to see in your environment.”

A heart, patterns, flowers, a long necked vase

Butterflies, clouds, and high rise apartment buildings

Fanciful flowers

Bao Zhu’s first drawing, trying to bring light into a dark place through smudging white and yellow colors on black

Bao Zhu’s first try of drawing a tree

A young girl in the workshop drew this startling image of chopped off hand with the knife placed beside it. Also a blue/green turtle on top of a pile of shit. She never revealed her story.

Sharing photos of brightly painted villages in Saudi Arabia with workshop participants, Lily encouraged them to use colors and create patterns.

Creating patterns

Bao Zhu and her patterns

The patterns reflect people’s different sensitivity and temperaments

How can we make our environment beautiful?

“We want it full of rich patterns and colors.”

“So lovely. An Kang will become a community filled with rainbow-like colors.”

“So lovely. An Kang will become a community filled with rainbow-like colors.”

Bao Zhu’s white tree calmly standing in a dark night speckled with white dots (lights?), The blues on the top were a part of another painting by her teammate.

Boa Zhu pinted her tree on the side of a An Kang four story building.

People call her Ma Ma Tang. She is in her 60s and has been An Kang’s resident for a long time. Wearing a mask due to a cold, she was painfully shy during the first day. She rarely opened her mouth. When she spoke, she whispered. Obviously it was very difficult for her to draw. She said, “I have never been good at drawing. I have no talent.” She summarily drew a cup with steam coming up and a few lines representing a bunch of bananas.

Someone in the group commented, :Tang Ma Ma is an excellent cook.” So I suggested that she drew something edible. She then drew a little pepper plant, which she then made larger. Tang Ma Ma also drew an alarm clock and a little statue of Buddha.

Sitting next to her, I enlarged her pepper plant, very much following her design. Tang Ma Ma was delighted. Now she felt much more confident and wanting to create more designs.

During the building façade design session, Tang Ma Ma took on the big concrete slab standing in front of the building. She changed her pepper plant design a bit to fit in the tablet. She painted the background in bright orange and yellow.

Her demeanor changed also. She began to speak and smile. Tang Ma Ma said, “I am sixty some years old, but here I am making drawings with the little grade school children in this elementary school. I want to recapture the joy of making art when I was little.”

By a talented resident, who is mother to an 18 year old son attending the first year in college. She loves colors and mosaic art. She creates drawings with meticulous details.

Her tree of life.

“Let our lives be filled with colors. Let our passion swirls around the sun in rainbow-like colors.”

Her tree of life for the An Kang housing project.

Explaining to participants the power of children’s art, Lily shows how the pencil drawing in her right hand by a young child contributed to her design of flowers in her left hand. The photo of the brightly colored flowers shows the top portion of a three story high mural in North Philadelphia.

In the afternoon of the third day of the workshop, Lily conducted a group painting session. She organized the participants into three groups. Each person started with his/her own images. Then the images merged together and became three large paintings.

The participants are all doing their individual things. The little girl on the left discovered the wonder of dots. Inspired by Lily’s pictures of some snow covered gardens in North Philadelphia, she decides to paint a snow scene filled with white dots. “Vow, Bao Zhu is so bold in putting down black.”

This 18 year old young man paints with confidence. He paints both the subject and the background also. His work encourages the group to use colors and to paint with gusto.

The little girl on the left transferred her chopped hand with the chopper on its side onto to the big painting.

This colorful painting composed of the sun flower, palm tree, rainbow, teddy bears, birds, and stars absorbed even the gruesomeness of the chopper and the chopped hand on the upper left.

The snowy scene, the tree in the dark night sky, the bright sun lit background on the right under the clear blue sky with a rainbow fit so well together.. The team felt very proud in producing this painting together.

The little girl on the right was so inspired by painting that she created this picture after she completed her lovely snow scenery. That afternoon, she painted continuously for five hours.

The award celebrates her talent and achievement in the workshop.

All the young participants received their own awards. And they gave Lily a gift. “Thank you teacher. This painting is for you.”

The An Kang community performance group. The leader stands in the center with Tang Ma Ma on her right. Some participants are handicapped. Although life is hard in this disenfranchised community, people do find ways to create joy and build trusting relationships. Supported by the community, the group is proud to share their talent and happiness. In the background are the paintings created in our workshop. The characters denote” Creating Public Art for our An Kang Community.”

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