Making Place Meaningful: The Role of Folk Art in Community Development, Part 1 | Carol Ng-He

In my Arts and Community Development class this spring semester, we are centered on the study and application of the principles of community-based art through four A’s: Asset-based (drawing the existing strengths of the community), Accessibility (creating an open and welcoming space for creating), Alliance (building collaboration and supportive networks), and Activism (promoting social change).

To me, a goal when using these four A’s is to make places meaningful. My inspiration comes from literature which I use as required readings in my class. One of them is the Beginners’ Guide to Community-based Art by Mat Schwarzman and Keith Knight (2005, New Village Press). The beauty of this graphic book is the feature of several existing community art projects around the country. One of the featured artists in this book who has profoundly influenced my thinking and teaching is Lily Yeh.

Connecting the Dots… From the Past to the Future

I recently read Lily Yeh’s new book, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms (2011, New Village Press) – a documentation of Lily’s artistic collaboration with children of migrant labors in a middle school in Beijing. Her book fascinates me because of her enduring passion toward the “broken places” in the world. Her work, in general, shows me vividly how the principles I have been talking about in class – asset-based, accessibility, alliance, and activism – can work together seamlessly through a contemporary approach to folk art.

Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms (2011). New Village Press. Photo Credit: New Village Press.

Both of us being Chinese immigrant woman, I have been curious about her idea of “place” and the relevancy of folk art in the process of community development. Additionally, I have come to realize that I need and want to deepen my own understanding of this kind of work in order to better elevate my students’ understanding to the field and the teaching artists within it.

So I reached out to Lily Yeh in the hopes of creating a clearer picture of the relationship between my own cultural heritage my TA practice integrating the arts and community development.  I contacted Lily through the website of Barefoot Artists, Inc, a nonprofit organization that she founded.  An hour-long phone conversation with her opened my eyes to the value of a placed-based community art education approach.

Getting Deeper into “Place”

In Awakening Creativity, the Dandelion Project in Beijing focuses on the weaving community through folk art. Inspired by Lily’s sensitivity to the history and revival of a place, I asked her about how the idea of “place” is important to her.

During our conversation, I discovered that the lingering effect of feeling displacement can guide a person to reflect, re-position, and re-center – physically, emotionally and artistically; more importantly, it can create a springboard for the artist to help others channel these emotions into innovative art-making. “My work is all about acknowledging that sense of place. Like in Chinese landscape painting, through which I learned how to paint, it is about a transcendent place – tranquil but dynamic, empty but full.”

As an immigrant woman, Lily experienced a shock during her early years in college learning about American contemporary art. “I totally felt like being pulled from my root, that took years to understand the multiple layers about this momentous transition,” Lily recalled.

This sense of alienation prompted her to find a place inside of her, where she could make her life count. At Dandelion, she works with children of migrant laborers from all over China. Through creating new work inspired by the traditions and mythologies of Chinese folk art, students find connections between one another and look at the past in a new way, just as Lily did in her own life. To me, Lily makes the experience of physical and psychological transitions of the migrants’ lives meaningful while making a nurturing place for creativity and exploration.

When the idea of “place” seems to be foreign, or sometimes even non-existent to most of the community members, Lily communicates with people through the visual language of art and taking action together. She says that she responds to the need of a community by paying attention to the “move” inside of her.

Making one’s life count, shared prosperity, bearing witnesses with others. In talking with Lily these are the ideas that emerged as the foundation of place-making. Lily Yeh’s understandings of “place” is fluid and open, to an extent a kind of Taoist thinking which is about living in harmony, internally and externally. A place does not need to be confined by the physical existence, it can be a state of mind.

Between space and learning, I ask myself after the interview about how Lily’s work at Dandelion School can help broaden my understanding of place; how I can use her work as a model for my students in thinking about the meanings of “place” in their own practice as an art student or teaching artist-to-be; how I can help my students find their own “place,” like Lily does for her students.

(To be continued)

Carol Ng-He was born and raised in Hong Kong. Graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with MA in Art Education, she is a Chicago-based interdisciplinary artist and art educator. Carol has worked at Silk Road Theatre Project, Chicago Teen Museum, and Housing Opportunities For Women. Currently, she serves as Education Director at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive & Outsider Art, and is an adjunct faculty member at Columbia College Chicago.  Contact Carol 

Also by Carol Ng-He in ALT/space:
Between Space and Learning: Lessons from Hong Kong’s Museum of Education
The Blue House
Binding Books, Binding Community
Picking Up the “Unfinished Business”
Becoming a Teaching Artist
Art & Justice for All

The Outsider is In: Teacher Fellowship Program at Intuit

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