Healing Communities through Art – An Interview with artist and activist Lily Yeh

Read Time: 6 Minutes
We live in a divisive world. Politics, the pandemic, inequity, and ideologies are just a few things which fracture our societies today. The question “How can art and design help heal communities?” is more important than ever. Contributor Franck M. Mercurio interviewed Lily Yeh, the real-life protagonist of The Barefoot Artist. The film documents Yeh’s mission to rebuild shattered communities through immersive public art projects, across the globe, and is next week’s SEGD Film Focus — Thursday November 19th, film viewing starts at 5:30pm EST and live Q&A with Lily Yeh and panelists at 7:00pm EST.

Hi Lily! At the beginning of the film, The Barefoot Artist, you state that “The broken places are my canvases … they are where I began to find my voice.” Can you describe how communities-in-need-of-healing compel you as an artist?

In a way, we are all broken. In polite society, or more comfortable society, the brokenness is more hidden—we have more disguises to hide behind—but our weaknesses are more exposed in dire situations.

For me, I didn’t look to find those [broken] places to do work. It started with my own weakness and my own insufficiency. I felt my life was good, teaching at the University of the Arts [in Philadelphia] and exhibiting at the best galleries in town, and raising my son, and having a family—it was good. But I felt that something important was missing.

While I was seeking, life presented an opportunity and I was invited to an abandoned lot next to a building [owned by Arthur Hall], and it’s in the middle of inner city North Philadelphia. I had no notion of what it was like to work outdoors. I’m basically a studio painter. And never thought I would do community work; no, I just wanted to run away from this opportunity!

But a voice inside me said “You have to rise to the occasion … if I fail, at least I can do something with the children.” And that’s how it all started.

So after your friend Arthur Hall asked you to create something in the empty lot—and you accepted the challenge—how did you proceed?

We managed to create something with so little resources, it forced us to find the hidden treasures within the community. For example, all the bricks and stone blocks buried underground [in the abandoned lot]. When the city leveled the houses, they buried everything underground, so we started digging and found bricks—whole bricks!

And the children, usually, they would destroy things. But they were the ones helping us transport wood chips, dirt, soil … and a little boy, 3-and-a-half years old brought his little toy truck to help us transport wood chips!

Intuitively, I saw a stick in the abandoned yard. I picked it up and drew a big circle, and I said “From this, we’re going to build.” Looking back, that was such a symbolic act, finding that center. This is the first time I’m thinking about it, talking to you. It was like throwing a rock into a pond. It started to ripple out. It became, in all directions, a manifestation of community building.

We used mosaic as our expression. It’s like broken pieces, but through creative thinking and action, we pieced it together. And through beauty, we expressed our talents and our hope for the future.

The film takes viewers to see some of your other projects around the world, including the Genocide Memorial in Rwanda. How did the collaborative process bring about healing for so many traumatized Rwandans in the community of survivors?

My most emotionally powerful project was the building of the Genocide Memorial in the Rugerero district in Rwanda. I call it the Rwandan Healing Project, started in 2004 and it’s still going on today.

First, it was a survivors’ village, and the residents didn’t trust each other. They had to work together. Mosaic building is so meticulous. And it was one of the ways we built community, you have to work together, so that healing begins and the beauty brings out hope.

[In Rugerero], when I penetrated more, I found that everything was frozen, even under the bright sunlight, everything was a frigid darkness, completely frozen in the village atmosphere. Nobody talked.

So I said “How do you activate this? How do you bring people together?” Well, let’s paint some designs, let’s paint some color on the walls of the houses. This simple action was like striking a fire in the midst of the frozen darkness of a winter’s night. It gave out warmth; it began to beckon people, and through that, there was interaction.

We began to melt the frozen grief in peoples’ hearts

But the community wanted more than building a mosaic. “You have to help us to dig into the ground and bury the bones of our beloved, properly.” That’s when I had to find an engineer to help us dig into the ground and excavate a chamber to bury the dead.

I managed to do the mosaic project to cover everything, and through that, we could bring the community together for healing. Building the Genocide Memorial is the most significant act, the most visible act for healing, and every April 7 [the anniversary of the Rwandan genocide] thousands of people come together.
Are you working on new projects in 2020?

Yes, three ongoing projects right now—oh, four! [laughs]

The first one is the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia. I continue to work with them. We just restored a mural that was in bad shape called “The Sun, Flowers and The Sea” and another mural devoted to German Wilson, our beloved theater director.

[The second project] is the Carpenter Art Garden in Memphis. It’s located in a similar community [Binghamton]. Project founder Erin Harris, using the Village model, has been working with community members, especially the youth for eight years to turn abandoned lots into gardens. I’m hoping to go and create a public art piece with her community to celebrate her leadership and her community’s accomplishments.

[For the third] I started to do a teacher project, you know, “train the trainer.” I launched a campus transformation project in Yambio, South Sudan,with a colleague, a volunteer from Italy named Monica Gaspari. Through a Powerpoint presentation and a methodolocy manual, I trained her team and they trained teachers. And the teachers—elementary school teachers—from all over South Sudan now are going to bring this creative activity and transform their school campuses, their environments.

The biggest project is really the Dandelion School for Migrant Children, originally on the outskirts of Beijing. I helped them transform it, but now the original campus is completely destroyed; it is no more; all our hard work is gone. [The school] moved to a very high end, modernist, big, grand, concrete building. But people, especially students, feel so alienated [in the new facility]. We definitely want to increase the temperature of this rigid hard environment. So they brought me back—to help [the displaced children] to be rooted in Chinese culture and to launch “phase 2 transformation project, from environment to heart and mind through creativity and people working together.”

Purchase tickets now for the live showing and virtual discussion and Q&A with Lily Yeh, Aviva Kapust, Executive Director of the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia, and moderator Alan Jacobson, Founder-J2 Design/ Exit Design and board chair of the Village of Arts and Humanities on Thursday November 19th 5:30pm EDT!

Watch the Barefoot Artist Trailer here. To learn more about Lily Yeh, visit her website.