Project Description

Saul Behar

Lily Yeh’s bold vision and tireless work helped grow The Village into a multifaceted arts and cultural center, offering arts classes to children and adults and providing professional, social and spiritual enrichment.

In 1986, Lily Yeh was asked by the dancer and educator Arthur Hall to create a park in an abandoned lot next to the Ile Ife building in North Philadelphia. In partnership with Arthur’s friend JoJo Williams, a local mason, Lily invited children and adults to join her in clearing the rubble-filled lot. Together, they transformed the lot into an art park with brilliant mosaics and sculpted trees, creating an oasis of safety and peace.

The park blossomed into The Village of Arts and Humanities, a community-based art organization that Lily co-founded in 1989. Lily, Jo Jo, James “Big Man” Maxton, neighborhood residents, and staff transformed more than 120 abandoned lots into our current gardens and parks, and created the foundation for our current focus at the intersection of arts and social justice.

Lily’s vision has rippled out far beyond North Philadelphia’s borders. She inspires and collaborates with prison inmates to create beauty and art, and does the same with thousands of adults and children who live in some of the world’s most broken communities. She has collaborated with residents of the Korogocho slum near Nairobi to transform a churchyard with murals and sculptures and traveled to Rwanda, Ghana, Ecuador, The Ivory Coast and the Republic of Georgia to work on similar projects.

Born in China, Lily emigrated to the United States in the early 1960s to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. A successful painter and professor at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, Lily traveled to Beijing in 1989 to show her work at the Central Institute of Fine Art. While there, she witnessed the tragic events of Tiananmen Square. Through the 1980s, Lily gradually realized that being an artist “is not just about making art…It is about delivering the vision one is given…and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.” She continues pursuing her vision through her new organization, Barefoot Artists, Inc., which teaches residents and artists how to replicate the Village model in devastated communities around the world.

You can read more about Lily’s work, past and present, at www.barefootartists.org.