“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.”

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