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Chinese Artist in African-American Community - 2002-12-12

English Feature #7-37643 Broadcast 14 July 2003

On July 1 the Ford Foundation announced national finalists for the 2003 “Leadership For a Changing World” awards. These awards go to individuals who demonstrate the depth and complexity of service to the community in America. Among the twenty-nine finalists is Lily Yeh, an artist from China, who virtually single-handedly transformed a run-down African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Here is her story.

Lily Yeh, a painter trained in Taiwan, uses an entire neighborhood in the eastern city of Philadelphia as her canvas.

“All of the art I do is free. It doesn’t have a commercial value. You could say that none of it’s worth a penny. But you could also say that it’s priceless, a treasure you can’t pick up, can’t hold, and can’t take with you.”

Lily Yeh studied traditional Chinese landscape painting in Taiwan. She came to the United States in 1963, received a graduate degree in fine arts, and taught painting and art history while continuing to exhibit her own work. In 1986 she volunteered to spend the summer building a small park on a garbage-strewn vacant lot in a poor black neighborhood in Philadelphia known for its high rates of poverty and crime. First, she got the local children to help her clean up the lot.

“When I first came here, people said that the street kids would wreck whatever I created. I thought I had better get them to help with the construction. That way they wouldn’t want to wreck what they had created themselves.”

Using bricks, tile and paint, Lily Yeh and the children constructed the community’s first meditation garden, with edged paths and curved walls painted with bright floral motifs. In a largely African-American neighborhood where there were few Chinese faces, Lily Yeh became a familiar figure.

“At the end of that first summer, I didn’t think I would go back. I thought that because the project was over, I was done. But while I was working on that project, I felt a real kinship with the other people, like electricity. A kind of light and love that you can’t find elsewhere, that made me want to go back.”

The next summer Lily Yeh and her young helpers built a second and then a third small garden in North Philadelphia. Other projects followed. Sculptures sprang up in vacant lots, murals appeared on the walls of dilapidated buildings. Ms Yeh found funding for her projects, and other artists joined in her work. Local residents, at first suspicious, began to pitch in as they saw their community become transformed. One of Lily Yeh’s first adult local supporters was James Maxton, a drug addict. As he helped Ms. Yeh by performing odd jobs while she struggled to build her art program, he gradually quit using drugs.

“If she hadn’t of been here, I would have been totally lost. If she hadn’t picked this community at that particular time, to do what she was doing, I don’t think we would have met. I think I just would have been someplace, curled up in some corner someplace, waiting for death to come.”

Over time, what started out with one small community garden grew to be a Village of Arts and Humanities, featuring several parks, gardens, and a community center that houses writing, art and dance classes, ceramics workshops, after-school programs. Local residents participate in many activities sponsored by the Village, including festivals, art shows, and dance and musical-theatre presentations featuring teenagers. James Maxton says Lily Yeh has touched innumerable lives.

“She’s almost been a guardian angel to the community. She came in ‘88 with the desire to do one little piece, she didn’t think it would be a life-long mission. Through that she learned to love the children and came back time and time again for them, seeing the way the community is, for one thing. Enlightenment, education, and beauty, and art -- and she’s been doing that. The community is so empowered because of her.”

Lily Yeh has received many awards for her work with the North Philadelphia African-American community, including the prestigious 50-thousand dollar Pew Fellowship in the Arts and an honorary doctorate. But she says her greatest reward is something less tangible.

“In the process of making these things, what I’m looking for is a sense of peace, a more peaceful world. So why have I come here? It’s difficult to express. You can say it was a coincidence, but it's also been the answer to my search for many years.”

Lily Yeh is planning similar projects in Africa, China and Latin America. Should she be a recipient of this year’s Leadership for a Changing World award, she would receive $115,000 to advance her work. The awards will be announced on October 7th.

We thank Roger Hsu of VOA's Mandarin Service for material from his VOA-TV feature on which this story was based.