4th Year, Art Education Specialization
Interview with Lily Yeh
Each country, each city has “broken places” that have experienced financial ruin and unemployment. There, in these “broken places” are communities who need the work most and are grateful to have it, waving much of the imposing regulatory hoops to jump through.
Lily Yeh is one of the most prolific and inspiring figures in contemporary community arts. Born in China and raised in Taiwan, Yeh studied traditional Chinese painting before immigrating to Philadelphia, USA in 1963. After completing her master’s degree, Ms. Yeh began a thirty year career as a professor of painting and art history at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. In 1986 Ms. Yeh’s community art career began when Arthur Hall, a dancer, choreographer and teacher involved in community building, asked her to transform a vacant lot beside the Afro-American Dance Ensemble’s studio building in North Philadelphia. In 1989, Ms. Yeh co‑founded the Philadelphia based organization The Village of Arts and Humanities. Under her direction, the organization would convert over one hundred and twenty lots into public community art parks, gardens and artist studios. In 2003, Ms. Yeh branched out on her own to found Barefoot Artists Inc., a non-profit organization that would take her community arts projects to an international level. Barefoot Artists Inc. has spearheaded community art interventions in Rwanda, Ghana, Palestine, Haiti, India, Ecuador and Syria, to name only a few. In 2009, Lily Yeh was the recipient of the Fleisher Art Memorial Founder’s Award for her dedication to community art. Her reverie and determination have been captured in a 2013 documentary film entitled The Barefoot Artist.
On February 27, 2014, I had the great fortune to sit down, one on one, with the legendary Lily Yeh while she was visiting Concordia University to give the keynote speech and a methodological workshop at the Art Education Graduate Symposium, “The Art of Transforming Communities.” Our conversation began with discussing her career move from a prestigious teaching position and gallery representation in Philadelphia to a community arts practice. Ms. Yeh explained that she has lived a life without want. Her parents had given her a lovely home to live in, food on the table and an education. Philadelphia has given her many opportunities, from working at the university to exhibiting in art galleries. She was grateful for her successes, but felt something was missing. When she began to work on the first art park project with Arthur Hall, she recalled knowing right away that this type of community building project through art was for her. Ms. Yeh states that at the time she remembers not even talking about it with her colleagues at the university. “Why would anyone go from the gallery to the inner city? It would have seemed so wild to them!” she reminisced.
At the time, she remarks, the prevailing idea was that no art of any value or quality could be produced in the community art setting. She recounts feeling unsure of what truly could be done, and if there was something to be achieved, she wasn’t sure if she could do it. Ms. Yeh recalls not knowing if the art park project would be possible at all and where would she find the required materials: “But then the money showed up and the whole thing became real.”
Our conversation moved to discussing the current state of communities in 21st century society. Noting the significant rise in urban property values that have pushed our lower and middle class citizens to the outskirts of urban centers and beyond; the destruction of industry cities like Detroit, rendering working families homeless; and the rapid gentrification of our urban neighborhoods and the erection of a ‘Starbucks culture’, I asked Ms. Yeh whether within these economic conditions, communities can still maintain a community voice, and if so, whether this voice can be heard over the rattle and hum of supposed progress.
Ms. Yeh responded that while you cannot fight the great tide of capitalism, you must be determined to have your voice heard, to make your life count. She makes clear that each one of us must take a stand and reveal an “authentic” point of view that is reflective of who we are and our own social circumstance. Ms. Yeh suggests that this process begins in small scale interactions that must be met with attentive and fervent listening and respect. It is in these everyday interactions that allow for voices not to be “dominated by the mainstream,” rather, to be heard. She believes that we are each responsible to make choices that reflect our values; for example, to use our purchasing power to support our communities. Ms. Yeh asserts that our individual voice carries great power of which we are seldom aware. She states that if we are to create change and adopt a common voice, we need to respect ourselves and each other, give value to our own individual voice as well as the voices around us, and claim our right to that common voice. “If we take ourselves seriously, our voice seriously, our actions manifests of our values. Our voices and actions together then can be heard. Our voices have great power. We can never give that away.”
We then discussed the modern notion of space and its implications for art parks. In the current real estate market, many developers target low-income neighbourhoods as, seizing inexpensive vacant lots that can be turned into large condominium projects, marketed as within trendy ‘up and coming’ neighborhoods. I asked Ms. Yeh about the differences and difficulties in acquiring these lots for the use of art parks today compared to when she began her work in community art beginning her practice. I asked her if the
lots spaces that are being used by community art initiatives are in danger and if so, is there is a future for urban art parks at all?
“Space is always available; it is just about how you define that space,” Ms Yeh responded. She agrees that cities are becoming more and more expensive, however she insists you can still find space by changing your focus. Ms. Yeh describes how too often art activists look for transformable space in their own backyards when they should be following “the space” instead. She cites Detroit as an example, where you can now find all the space you want. Ms. Yeh claims that her own search for space brought her to this conclusion. She describes how all urban space is watched closely and observing parties bring with them a set of bureaucratic challenges that can be at odds with the free approach of grassroots community development projects. Ms. Yeh states, “I don’t want to ask for permission. I want to do what I need to do. I want to follow my passion and live my life.”
Lily Yeh believes that community artists and activists should be looking to the “broken places” for space. Each country, each city has broken places that have experienced financial ruin and unemployment. There, in these broken places, are communities that need the work most and are grateful to have it, and will often waive many of the imposing regulatory hoops to jump through. Ms. Yeh suggests that these broken places are the new frontier for art and social change. The derelict state of these broken places, the collapsed houses and cracked streets, represent our lack of foresight, vision, imagination and innovation; she avows that these broken spaces wait for those who are brave and can see past the rubble to the endless possibilities.
I wanted to know more about Barefoot Artists and where the organisation is headed. I asked Ms. Yeh about the future of the organisation and the volunteers she works with. How does she choose her protégés and how would a Concordia Art Education student get involved?
Lily Yeh attests that Barefoot Artists Inc. operates hand to mouth. When the organisation has funding, it can wield great change to desperate communities. However when the money runs out, the entire operation grinds to a halt. Ms. Yeh explains that the organisation itself is run completely by volunteers, herself included. Her eighteen years at the helm of The Village of Arts and Humanities brought with it a massive responsibility to manage the maintenance of the parks, the staff and the organisation itself. Part of her decision to leave and start Barefoot Artists Inc. was to get back to hands-on project management. The key to the success of the Barefoot Artists Inc. projects are the partnerships that she makes at the local level. Ms. Yeh states that each site has different needs and requires different types of leadership and direction. “Every project is different. I don’t go [to a community] with a system to put in place. I have to feel the land and the people.”
Ms. Yeh recounts the help she received from students of the University of Florida and Jefferson University, who participated as volunteers on two of her projects. “University students are so savvy,” says Ms. Yeh. “When the right students come in with their energy and their desire to change the world, beautiful things can happen.” I asked her if university students can contact Barefoot Artists Inc. and pitch a project? She replied yes, but that the circumstances need to be carefully examined. Ms. Yeh described how it can be problematic when university students take leadership roles that knowingly or unknowingly upstage the local citizens. Sensitization and training are required to ensure that the projects outlined by students do not become academic pursuits that overshadow the needs of the community. The underlying goal in any project is to empower the local community, so that when Barefoot Artists leave a site, the work continues guided by the community leaders and propelled the community’ own initiative.
Our conversation turned to considering the issue of funding and the implications of partnering with businesses. We discussed how it can be difficult to negotiate the amount of influence and exposure that corporations should have and will have on the community when grass roots organizations seek out financial support. I asked Ms. Yeh how to best approach a partnership with a business, without setting a tone for corporate culture within that community?
“It can be done,” responds Lily Yeh, confidently. Ms. Yeh outlines that when dealing with financial aid from those who could be influential, you must set boundaries from the beginning. Yeh believes that most corporations are interested in having a positive impact on their local communities and given the chance to rise to the occasion, they will. It is the channelling of their goodwill that needs to be mediated, says Ms. Yeh. The corporation must also respect the message of the project and not overshadow the members of that community. She emphasizes again, it is the community partners and their role in the project that are essential to this negotiation. When you have the ear of that community and can truly understand their specific needs, only then can you act in their best interest. Keeping the community leaders involved is the best way to make certain that the focus of the project remains on course.
To close our discussion, I asked Ms. Yeh about the documentary on her work entitled The Barefoot Artist, a film co-directed by Glenn Holsten and her son Daniel Traub. I asked her whether she ever envisioned herself becoming a film star. Ms. Yeh said she had never considered making a documentary, although Glenn Holsten had filmed her work at The Village of Arts and Humanities in its early stages for a local Philadelphia PBS station. (Holsten’s filming of Yeh’s work continued over the years and become a one hour documentary on the North Philadelphia projects, released over a decade ago.) When she began working under Barefoot Artists Inc., her son Daniel would travel with her. “He would do me the favour of filming what was happening,” says Ms. Yeh.
Lily Yeh recounts that film came about when she decided to mend the “broken places” in her own life. Divorcing his first wife to marry Lily’s mother, her father had two families, fathering children with two women. After her father’s death, Lily Yeh wished to bridge the gap between the now middle-aged and elderly children of the two families. Holsten asked to film this process. Through these periods of filming, Traub interned with Holsten, becoming a filmmaker in his own right. “Glenn had my family story and Daniel had the stories of my work, so the two of them came together.” says Ms. Yeh. She told me that at first she felt like the two stories would be difficult to overlap. Then she realised that both stories have a common thread: both are about repairing brokenness. “Without realising it, without knowing it, I was drawn to broken places, because of the brokenness in my own family.”
“Broken places are my canvases. Peoples’ stories are my colors. Together we shape something that belongs to nobody and to everyone. That is Barefoot Artists. That is my work.”
Lily Yeh is in her seventies, but projects an energy that can only be described as youthful. Her laughter and joie de vivre make it easy to understand why she has been welcomed into so many lives and communities. Her passionate community arts practice is a global presence of goodwill, proving that with a little paint and a lot of heart, real social change is not only possible but very attainable. If I had to take away only one thing from our conversation it would be that one individual can make a profound difference. That change is possible if we respect our voice and the voices of our communities.
Profound thanks to Lily Yeh, for this candid conversation about art, community, family and the possibilities for a better world.
For further information about Lily Yeh and her work: