Lily Yeh was an internationally recognized artist as well as a respected professor when in 1986 she was invited by a North Philadelphia community leader to create a piece of public art in an abandoned lot in his neighborhood. That invitation changed her life and eventually the lives of countless residents in neighborhoods from Philadelphia and Milwaukee to communities in Kenya, China and Rwanda.
In the late ’80s, she, with the help of children and adults from an inner-city neighborhood in North Philadelphia, created what came to be known as The Village of Arts and Humanities. It contains a series of parks, gardens and renovated houses that have become a vibrant and cherished community hub. Lily’s work on The Village became an inspiration for creative place-makers around the world and earned her global recognition and dozens of fellowships and awards, including honorary doctorates from Villanova University, Syracuse University and the University of Massachusetts.
After serving for 18 years as the Village’s executive director and lead artist, Lily created Barefoot Artists, an organization that allowed her to bring her practice of building community through the arts to neglected neighborhoods around the world. Among the projects Lily has created with Barefoot Artists are the building of the Genocide Memorial Park in Gisenyi, Rwanda; the transformation of the Dandelion School for migrant children on the outskirts of Beijing from a harsh and bleak old factory into a vibrant campus filled with dazzling murals and mosaics; a series of projects in the Korogocho dump site community outside of Nairobi, Kenya; and several more projects in Balata Refugee Camp in the West Bank.
In this interview with Pier Carlo Talenti, Lily discusses how listening closely to and taking action to follow her inner voice led her down a completely unforeseen artistic path and a new understanding of home, community and belonging.