Art has the power to transform, in a positive way, people and places that have been destroyed, decimated and are filled with sorrow. Artists can help those who suffer recover a sense of self-identity and joy. A shining example of such an artist accomplishing these wonders is Lily Yeh, 74. Through the Barefoot Artists Organization which she founded in 2002, Ms. Yeh travels all over the world and tirelessly brings together people who live in such despairing environments into a dance of art. She is one of our favorite world changers.
In our recent conversation Ms. Yeh explained to me, it is “like making fire in the frozen darkness of the winter’s night. Through the collaborative action of creating beauty we empower ourselves and others to open the hell gate of slums so that fresh air and sunlight can pour in.”
She engages people in the work of transforming the environment of their communities through beauty and in so doing honors their humanity. Her projects have taken her to a rundown area of Philadelphia; the slums of Nairobi; to a genocide site in Rwanda; the West Bank of Palestine; impoverished communities in Taiwan; a city dump in Korogocho, Kenya and many other places.
In 2002 Lily Yeh won the Arts and Healing Network AHN Award as founder of the Village of Arts and Humanities.
Engaging Local Children in Workshops
Ms. Yeh likes to begin her projects by organizing workshops with the local children and invites them to paint and draw their thoughts. They discover the creative power of art and their enthusiasm reaches out to parents, friends and neighbors — eventually involving entire neighborhoods.
She uses the native resources and teaches skills that incorporate construction, painting, tile making and design. Each project Lily undertakes reflects the needs and artistic culture of that community.
Genocide Memorial Park Project in Rwanda
One project took her to Rwanda (2004-present) where she was invited to design and create the Rugerero Genocide Memorial building. At the time she wondered how she, with little resources, could go there and build the genocide memorial.
“Life beckons and I responded”, she said. What resulted was a beautiful Genocide Memorial Park and a bone chamber for reburial. By involving the local people in the making of this memorial, the grieving survivors in Rwanda felt a sense of peace. The healing process began, and as Ms. Yeh reminds us, art and beauty heal.
“It’s possible to transform the violent energy of our time into a culture of kindness. All things are possible through the openness of our mind, the gentleness of our spirit, and the act of understanding and embracing.” ~ Lily Yeh
Mural Painting in The West Bank
Ms. Yeh just returned from her fourth trip to the West Bank, Palestine where she engaged the people of Nablus to help in the painting of a mural on an ancient stone wall. Designed by Robert Shetterly, this mural immediately birthed a long lost feeling of pride and hope.
She also encouraged some of the young despairing men to help brighten up and enliven the spirit of the place by enlisting them in painting rusted iron doors with bright colors. The simple act of bringing bright color to the doorways uplifted everyone in the community.
Another mural was painted in El Akaba — a tiny village situated in the “Section C” of Palestinian territory. The resulting artwork illustrated the longing in the heart of people and supported their sense of identity. “Art helps people to remember that they do not suffer in vain,” she emphasized. The energy created brought some magic and transformed a fragile place into an area of beauty.
“So many artists have such great skill and on their life’s journey they can do so much more to help inspire justice. Listen to the voice in your hearts, be courageous to respond to life’s calling; take creative action which guided by compassion will then lead to transformation”. ~ Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh’s Awakening Creativity Workshops
Lily Yeh has been recognized throughout the world for her Awakening Creativity Workshops which inspires others to use the Barefoot Artists’ methodology to encourage people of all ages to bring, through art, the ideas of sustainability, cultural awareness and community building.
The list of her’s accomplishments is long. She has received many awards, the most recent being the University of Pennsylvania Urban Leadership Award.
When Ms. Yeh gave an address at the People’s State of the Union address at the U.S. Department of Arts and Culture where she is a cabinet member, she stated, “It’s possible to transform the violent energy of our time into a culture of kindness. All things are possible through the openness of our mind, the gentleness of our spirit, and the act of understanding and embracing.”
Lily Yeh’s Message to Artists
Ms. Yeh encourages all artists to make a difference. “So many artists have such great skill and on their life’s journey they can do so much more to help inspire justice. Listen to the voice in your hearts, be courageous to respond to life’s calling; take creative action which guided by compassion will then lead to transformation.”
Her work is evidence that we who inhabit our earth can help turn ravaged land into the place of beauty that it once was.
A movie about Lily Yeh and Barefoot Artists Organization has been released. The LA Times wrote: “Poignant look at transformative artist Lily Yeh”. Learn more about it at http://barefootartistmovie.com/
Visit the Barefoot Artists Organization’s website www.barefootartists.org