Making Place Meaningful: Lily Yeh & The Role of Folk Art in Community Development, Part 2 / Carol Ng-He

Lily Yeh is a constant traveler around the globe, working on projects in China, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, and Ecuador and many other places. Her ability to develop and manage different art projects in so many locations amazes me. I talked with her about her vision in my previous post Making Place Meaningful: The Role of Folk Art in Community Development, Part I.  In that post, Lily shares that her need to search for her inner voice and her cultural roots continuously motivates her to make art with people. As an artist, she feels the responsibility to “awaken others’ creativity.”

Lily Yeh. Photo Credit: New Village Press.

With a singular focus on promoting justice with different communities, Lily feels at home no matter where she is in the world. Her work indeed awakens creativity, myself included. For a long time I have struggled to position my place between my interest in folk art, my background in classical Chinese music, and my current practice as an artist, a college professor and a museum educator. A conversation with Lily has given me fresh resolution to find connections between my past and present, and perhaps for my students in the future.  Here is a little more of what I learned about Lily and her work during my phone conversation with her:

Broken Place as Open Studio
From an unsettling immigration journey, then a cultural clash between traditional Chinese art and contemporary American art, Lily Yeh turns these seemingly fragmented pieces of her life into a powerful force for meaning making and mending. She calls broken places her studio – turning disenfranchised communities into her canvases, using people’s stories as shapes and colors, and their talent and imagination as the art-making tools like brushes.

Folk Art Builds
This approach led Lily to found The Village of Arts and Humanities that was incorporated in 1989, with the focus on inspiring people to be agents of positive change through providing opportunities for self-expression rooted in own culture. Later in 2002, Lily took her art practice to an international level and found another organization, Barefoot Artists, Inc., which works with poor communities around the globe practicing the arts to bring healing.

Over time, Lily’s work has evolved from a simple summer public art project, inspired by the traditional Chinese aesthetics, into a full-scale community development programs that address universal human needs. Her concern is not only to transform the communities’ physical environment, but also to support the “physical, emotional, educational and economic well-being of the people within the community,” as well.

Lily’s work proves how art can go beyond object making. In her work, I see that art is about the creativity in making connections of the past to present, turning the old into new, jointing the broken into wholeness, building each other up, and helping each other make sense of the world of today.

Growth of Smallness
At the age of 70, Lily Yeh’s voice is soft yet energetic. She recommended I watch a trailer of an upcoming feature film about her Dandelion School project – a metamorphosis of a dilapidated factory on Beijing’s outskirts into a vibrantly designed school with Chinese folk art for children of migrant workers. And I did. In this five-minute clip, I was touched by the spirit of togetherness between the artist and the students, and the contended expressions on the children’s faces while making the mosaics for Dandelion Middle School.

Lily concluded our phone conversation by saying, “Listen more, talk less. Show more warmth and concern. Give help.” The Dandelion School project has touched so many lives — the project scope is grand and involves the participation of the entire school, yet it was started by small acts.  Making place meaningful begins by taking one small step at a time. Artists in community lead with a servant heart and a mindful purpose.

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