Art For Social Transformation
--Anne-Marie Bauer
8 minute read
Aug 18, 2014


Can you remember a time when you were a child, when given those crisp white pieces of paper and a box of vibrant colored crayons, how time stood still? How you could take yourself anywhere or be just about anything, by how and where you drew the lines? How you could erase the day's sorrow by painting it over? Or draw your day as joyfully as you imagined it to be? To a child- anything is possible with the magical tools of color and canvas. Drawing, painting or being creatively expressive has ability to be deeply cathartic and disentangle our inner most feelings, hopes and dreams. Art has the power to awaken our truest nature. In a profoundly touching Awakin call, with the very sweet Lily Yeh,-we hear a heartfelt cry and passion of hers, to help people reconnect with their inner child and creative light. She shows us the potential art has in being transformative-for the individual and for communities at large.  

Lily was born in Kueizhou, China, but later immigrated to the United States in the early 1960's. She became a successful painter and professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts after attending University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. In her lifetime, Lily has come across many tragic events and broken places. In 1989, while showcasing her artwork at the Central Institute of Fine Art, she witnessed the horrific events of Tiananmen Square. Feeling devastated by the cruelty inflicted on innocent civilians around the world, she came to realize how she can use art to heal the hearts of these broken communities and with that, bring people together again. She guides us with her light and love for humanity, and shows us that we are all creative beings. She believes it is our innate nature to create, and we do not have to be well known artist to do so.  

“I want to be an artist that lights up other peoples pilot light, and show that my light doesn't outshine the other person's light...I want others to know that we can we shine together. I believe everyone has creativity- it's a gift that is given to us as humans, but a lot of times it is dormant, a lot of times we disempower ourselves by saying I'm not an artist so I can't do that.”

Lily expresses that her work is to awaken this creative light in others. She feels that creativity guided by compassion, will move us towards this common light and there lays hope for the future.

While living in Philadelphia, Lily befriended Arthur Hall, dancer and founder of the 'Afro-American Dance Ensemble.' He not only witnessed the talent she possessed, but above all the passion and compassion she has for serving others. He asked her to create a park in an abandoned lot next to his studio. There, with the aid of the community, she transformed destruction and desolation into beautiful mosaic murals and sculptured trees. Lily feels had it not been for this opportunity, she would have not found her path. 

I would not have understood the depth of compassion and endurance of the human capability to not only survive, but to remake oneself over and over again. To turn from destruction to construction.”

During this project in Philadelphia she met a man, who had came to her friend, "JoJo"- seeking help. The man, nick named “Big Man” for reaching 6'8'' of height, had over the years managed to nearly destroy himself and the neighborhood around him, falling into the claws of drug abuse. Understanding the goodness we all have inside, Lily and JoJo offered Big Man an opportunity to help uplift his neighborhood. 

When he (Big Man) saw beauty, he saw hope. People started started also seeing the beauty he had in his heart. He then the started dedicating his life to making art, to making mosaics and putting his life together. Because he has suffered so much, he has immense understanding and sympathy of other people who are struggling or who are in the dark. He taught me a lot about compassion.”

Despite Lily's dedication and work towards bringing people and communities together, she believes she has been the recipient of her biggest gifts in life. 

On the surface people will see a Chinese woman coming in to transform broken lots and buildings, and beautifying parks. They'll think I'm doing something good. But it is not just about that. I feel I've received more than anybody, because of the depth of understanding I now have of life. In understanding what is real. Serving others helps me discern what is important and what is not important.”  

Fueled with passion for others, she also understands that she cannot just walk into a community or a village and start laying down 'new house rules.' One needs skillful means in building trust and kinship from the people she hopes to serve. The places Lily is drawn to- do not always come out of her own choosing. She believes they choose her. They come to her from listening to her inner heart. She knows there are many broken places in the world where this kind of work is needed, and cannot go to all of them, but feels one must pay attention to one's heart when it is moved by a place or someone. Lily explains her work also cannot begin until there is an invitation from someone within the community.  Having a connection and building a bond with someone within the community is key. That someone needs to be rooted in the community. She also explains that when starting her work, she knows that beginning small is important. Starting small lays down the foundation for deeper work later on.  

The whole process is an organic process. You plant the seed, when your heart is moved. It is like an idea that is fertilized and you look for opportunity. When a community is inviting you in, that is an opening -the wind is blowing that way. When there is someone willing to work with you, it's like good soil. The seeds can be planted in that soil. Then you need to nurture it with activities and programs. Because people don't know you, you need to find a way for people to get to know you and participate.”  

Lily finds the best way to get people to participate is to invite the children to come along and play with making the art. “When children get involved, they get happy and that is like breaking open the hard soil.” She notes that the programs themselves are not enough, you have to display the accomplishments for the children and the participants. It is ultimately the whole community that nourishes the programs and projects. It is their support that will keep the programs alive and this nourishment takes continuity she adds. Sometimes a project can even take up to 5-10 years.

Guided by the voice of her heart, Lily has started several projects, including The Village of Arts and Humanities, co-founded by her in 1989, where Lily along with neighborhood residents and staff members worked together to transform more than 120 lots into magical gardens and parks. Vacant homes have been renovated and art workshops started. Also a local youth theater erected and educational programs established. But in 2003 her heart took her internationally, where Lily further applied her skills at connecting others through art. She founded a non-profit organization called Barefoot Artist Inc. Using the same methodology as when she was in Philadelphia, the Barefoot artists work to empower local residents to take action by the power of art, to transform their communities. Lily has worked on at least 10 different projects in impoverished communities, including in Rwanda, Kenya and Ecuador. As a part of the Barefoot Artist Inc, the birth of the 'Rwanda Healing Project' came in to existence. The project works with children, using art as a means for healing and brings peace to the communities that have experienced genocide and civil war.  
It wasn't originally Lily's intention to go to Rwanda, but her “heart just clicked” after Jean Bosco Musana, Red Cross Regional Director spoke of the suffering of his people. She felt so moved, and decided to follow him despite an intention to go to Kenya to start a project. With a leap of faith as she describes it, and with no plan or money, she listened to what life was calling her to do, and convinced Jean Bosco to take her with him. She witnessed what she calls a “stark and solemn village... as dark as a winters night.. people being deeply depressed, widows and children just thrown together, with no sense of community, as people had no ownership of their homes, their environment, a place where people grieved in solitude.”

Rwanda- Lily shared, is a beautiful bright lush green place and what she wanted most was to find a way to bridge those broken connections. She started with painting the identically roughly made huts. She painted different designs and got the children excited and the villagers to join in creating bright and colorful uniquely painted houses. This Lily said, was what broke the ice. But working in such deeply wounded places, can be a intimidating task at first. She explains, that she knows she is only one person, but with her vision and drive, and with the support of noble friends who share a common vision and desire, she is better equipped to serve those in need.  
It seems that connecting to what is true within myself, I help other people connect. Making genuine connections lies at the beginning of building a real community....

I want to tell people and other artist, yes there are so many broken places, but it needs all of us to take action. In the end we are individuals who can do things that will benefit the most. You can transform the world through personal transformation. I am full of joy and full of gratitude, it is hard work and it really takes commitment, but commitment is life energy. We must do it as if our lives depended on it. Then one has drive and determination and one cannot help but do it. And that means personal awakening, personal transformation. Because it is not just about improving other people, it is also about changing ourselves.”

-Lily Yeh.



Posted by Anne-Marie Bauer on Aug 18, 2014

1 Past Reflections