While talking about poverty alleviation, chances are most people think about money, food, houses and many other physical assets. However, poverty can also be healed from the heart, and art has the transforming power to bring people out of destitution physically and mentally.
Lily Yeh is a petite 70-year-old Chinese artist. Born in China but raised in Taiwan, Yeh moved to the United States in 1963 to study painting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Art. Instead of becoming a studio artist who creates personal artwork, she chose to use art to develop impoverished communities, build connections among people, and bring prosperity. Yeh believes art is a powerful vehicle for healing, self-empowerment and social change.
“Making art in destitute areas is like making fire in the dead, cold night in the winter, which gives us warmth, light, direction, and we kindle hopes.,” Yeh said. “I can’t solve these huge social problems, but I can open up new possibilities and spaces where, through creativity and working together, we might come to new solutions.”
From 1986 to 2004, Yeh served as the co-founder, executive director, and lead artist of The Village of Arts and Humanities (The Village,) a non-profit organization dedicated to community building, economic development, and personal transformation through art. To conduct a summer park project for The Village, Yeh went to a community in North Philadelphia that was notorious for violence, drug trade, and destitution. It was called “a place without resources.” She offered art classes to local children and adults, and inspired them to paint together. Eventually, she transformed 200 abandoned lots into art parks and gardens.
Aside from changing the community’s landscape, Yeh gave people hope and fostered a sense of community pride and individual accomplishment. “It’s a new kind of empowerment,” Yeh said. “People’s minds are opened to new possibilities and affirmation.”
Under Yeh’s 18 year tenure at The Village, the organization has developed into a multifaceted center of arts and humanities, which includes educational programs, housing renovation, theater, and economic development initiatives. Currently, it has had 25 full-time and part-time employees, hundreds of volunteers, and a $1.3 million budget.
In 2002, Yeh founded Barefoot Artists, a volunteer organization which aims to revitalize the most impoverished communities in the world through participatory and multifaceted projects that foster community empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote economic development, and preserve and support indigenous art and culture. It partners with locals, joining with them to create beauty. Yeh believes that art is an inclusive process and everyone has an artist in their heart.
“Not my light shining bigger than anyone else,” she said. “We all have that innate light within us. My role is to kindle other people’s inner light, so we shine together.”
Yeh is now working on projects in Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, Ecuador, and China. She brings her unique methodology for using art as a tool for community empowerment and individual transformation to the world.
According to YES Magazine, Yeh worked with villagers to create a wall mural called “The Palestinian Tree of Life” in Palestine. In China, she transformed a once prison-like school into an ideal and brilliant place for study. In Rwanda, she helped people build a memorial to heal their still open wounds from the Rwandan genocide.
Yeh believes that the whole process of transformation and empowerment does not merely benefit people living in the communities. She is also inspired and fulfilled by the progress of art creation, believing that it makes her life meaningful.
– Liying Qian