Each installment features a writer, artist, or curator discussing an underrated artist, artwork, movement, or museum.
Lily Yeh, courtesy Paladin
Today we're with MacAdam Smith, communications manager at the National Guild, in conversation of Lily Yeh, an artist, and the co-founder (and executive director) of Barefoot Artists. She is also the artist in residence at The Village of Arts and Humanities. She's had her hand in many pots in the art community—when did you first come in contact with her?
I’d known about her large-scale community art projects for a while, but I got to meet Lily at our conference last year in Philadelphia. She had such an amazing energy and real affection for the communities she works with that it deepened my interest in her projects.
How would you describe her art to the uninitiated? What makes her style unique?
Lily has done an amazing series of projects working in communities around the world. She goes into impoverished areas (schools, small villages, abandoned inner-city lots) and works with the local community to design and build art installations, revitalizing rundown structures, bringing color and joy. Painting, sculpture and mosaics are used, and by working with the local residents her projects become a uniting community experience, rather than an outsider’s attempt at painting over the rust. Her ambition to organize these community projects is inspiring.
A still from "The Barefoot Artist," a documentary about Yeh, courtesy of Paladin
Lily was born in China, in 1941, under the rule of Mao Zedong. How much of her past, in this respect, do you think influences her art?
She was born in China, grew up in Taiwan, and went to grad school in the US in the 60s. That’s a good bit of travelling. This seems to have made her aware of the common threads woven through even the most diverse cultures. And not only made her art an eclectic medley of influences, but made her receptive and adaptive to the personalities of the communities she works in.
Can you tell us a bit about her work with Barefoot Artists? How does it reflect Lily's nature and drives?
Through Barefoot Artists Lily has done community art projects in China, Rwanda, Kenya, Ghana, and Ecuador, as well as all the work she was a part of in Philadelphia through the Village of Arts and Humanities and the “beautification of physical spaces.” By making her art a communal project, she invites her audience to become a co-artist with her, and strives to have the development, build, and maintenance of the artwork have a lasting positive impact on the health of the neighborhood.
Yeh's work in Rwanda, courtesy of Paladin
What can we learn from Lily's multifaceted career? Why do you think she deserves a wider audience?
Lily knows how a shared creative experience can unite a neighborhood, inspire a sense of shared commitment and responsibility in maintaining the group wellbeing and happiness. She is proof of the importance beauty and art have in bringing joy and meaning to communities.