Lily Yeh once had the perfect life. Or so it seemed—even, at times, to her. Other times, she told me, she sensed she was “missing something deep down.” Something beyond her settled family life, beyond her successful career as an artist and professor at the University of the Arts, in Philadelphia. And so she began to look for it.
Yeh, who is in her mid-70s, is now among the foremost leaders of what has become known as creative placemaking—the use of art to transform communities and the artists themselves, often one and the same. And when she speaks at Mia on March 22, in a talk called “Art and Place with Lily Yeh,” she’ll explain how she became that person. How she came to organize art projects in some of the world’s most broken places—North Philadelphia, Palestine, Rwanda, Kenya—in an attempt to make them, and herself, more whole.
Yeh grew up in Taiwan, with parents who supported her artistic inclinations. She took piano and dance lessons, to pass the long summer months. And she daydreamed intensely. She remembers an image in a picture book that sent her mind reeling, of two children standing before a lush rainforest, desiring to become smaller and smaller until they could jump into the landscape and explore. She remembers a day in high school when she drew her own fantastical landscape, so absorbed in her work that she “entered a room of silence.” Only later, she says, after finishing the drawing, could she hear her classmates talking again.
When Yeh came to the United States in 1963, to earn an MFA at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts, she felt out of place for the first time. The art she’d come to love in Taiwan—paintings of classical Chinese landscapes—was nowhere reflected in contemporary American art. She’d entered a scene that celebrated the genius of artists, their personal rebellion and vision—”not so much the community or the common people,” she says. She felt completely shook up, as though “the train was moving and I barely caught on.”
Still, she graduated. She began to teach. She showed in a fine gallery. But the more settled her life became, the more unsettled she felt.
Making Beauty Is Like Making Fire
Yeh began to travel widely. She explored. She looked wherever she could for the mysterious thing that was missing. It was only by chance that she ended up in North Philadelphia one day and met the dancer-choreographer Arthur Hall. She had been creating interior gardens, as a form of installation art, and Hall suggested she make her next installation in the abandoned lot beside his studio.
This was in the mid-1980s, when North Philly was a largely African-American community that, in a sense, had been abandoned completely—to the point that residents themselves had given up on it. Yeh was advised to move on. “People said, ‘You’re an outsider, the neighbors won’t like you, kids will destroy everything you make,'” Yeh recalls.
She was ready to abandon the notion herself when she decided “I don’t want seven years later to see a coward in the mirror,” and went looking for a willing partner in the neighborhood. Instead she found Joseph Williams, better known as Jo Jo. He was an angry, fearsome, unemployed man who lived in a partly renovated home next to the abandoned lot, and he avoided her the first couple times she tried to track him down and share her vision of an art park.
Finally, she found him and brought him on board, along with others whose unlikely support could rally the neighborhood. Former drug addicts. Kids. The very people everyone was sure would destroy the place became its guardians.
They eventually created, through mosaics and sculpture, not just a park but an organization called The Village of Arts and Humanities. Yeh quit her university job and ran the Village from 1986 to 2004, even as she took her vision of “dignity through creating beauty together” around the world.
In the hellish landscape of Korogocho, a Nairobi slum beside a massive garbage dump, Yeh converted a bleak churchyard into a brightly painted garden. In Rwanda, with survivors of its 1994 genocide, she created a memorial park along with education, health, and other community programs. And she founded a nonprofit, Barefoot Artists, to fund creative placemaking projects like these.
On the fringes, paradoxically, Yeh feels centered. No longer alienated or alone. “The most broken places are the most ready for transformation,” she says. “Creating beauty is like making fire—you want to throw in the driest, most dead-like tree branch to light the fire because it burns immediately.”
On the Side of the Light
A few years ago, in a documentary of her life and work, Yeh revealed her own broken past. Her father, who was orphaned in rural China at 6 and rose to become a celebrated military leader during the Japanese occupation, had married when he was very young. And when he fell for another woman—Yeh’s mother—he married her, too, and divorced his first wife.
War and communism pushed him and his new family to Taiwan, while his first—including five children—stayed behind. What little money he could send them was eventually cut off.
Her father, Yeh says, was incredibly loving and devoted. But this severing from his family “became his life’s regret,” Yeh says. “He didn’t talk about it, but even disguised in silence it was palpable in the air.”
Yeh didn’t talk about it either, at least publicly, until the documentary filming, when she decided that opening up could help others come to terms with their own brokenness. Her family has long since reunited— indeed is tightly knitted, she says, “bound by [their father’s] sadness, his regret, and his love.”
Pain, she says, is not likely to disappear from the world—no matter how much we strive for healing and beauty—because we are human and have the freedom to act on our temptations. “It’s not just banished, the darkness is part of the whole. To be on the side of the light requires our constant vigilance.”
“Life breaks all of us,” she says. It’s how we put the pieces together that is key. “Creating art is wonderful, but it must be guided by a sense of kindness, generosity, and compassion. If that creativity is procreated by selfishness and competitiveness, that leads to darkness. Find the balance. Then you can go to a place of deep fulfillment.”