"Like lighting a fire in the middle of a frozen night," asserts community artist Lily Yeh, "art can bring a blighted community back to life." She should know. Yeh has worked in the slums of Philadelphia, in the backyards of Kenya, in the killing fields of Rwanda, and in forgotten villages of Taiwan to take what has been broken down or tossed aside and convert it into a focal point of beauty. She first became known for an amazing project in Philadelphia that is now called the "Village of Arts and Humanities," but at the time it was literally an unkept bit of parkland and an alley replete with crime. From this, Yeh and an unlikely band of allies forged "Angel Alley:"
The "Angels" project was conceived after interviews with children in the nearby school who spoke about their basic fears for safety and survival in such a rough neighborhood. Yeh and colleagues showed the children pictures of guardian angels from many different traditions, and the children responded brightly to the notion that they could foster such support. Over the course of over a year, Yeh worked with neighbors, with street people, drug dealers and of course the children to create these massive mosaics. What was once a dark place where people were killed, is now a bright harbor through which the children pass on their way home.
In Kenya, Yeh was asked to work with villagers who had been downtrodden after racial conflicts and several years of poor crops and famine. The men had begun to drink in their despair, and the village was losing morale.
Yeh and colleagues designed and painted, along with the villagers, this massive mural, "Flowers in the Cosmic Night." The image was painted on the wall bordering a park that they created. The project began with them cleaning rubble and garbage that had been dumped constantly in the lot over several years. While they cleaned and cleared, the image of what they wanted to paint became clearer. These murals, painted intensively as part of an artists' residency, measure approximately ninety by thirty feet. They have done much for village morale, and many underemployed residents could join in the effort.
As a final example, Yeh and her "Barefoot Artists" colleagues also reclaimed a downtrodden school in Taiwan, whose remote location and history of poverty seemed overwhelming. The result was this massive mural on the school's exterior wall, painted by the entire village.
During the course of the project, Yeh also noticed that many of the village homes had rusting or weathered doors. She gifted some of the paint to the local men, who went around painting doors bright colors all over the village. The result: village men were empowered, the village was brightened, and everyone could share in the sense of renewal inspired by the project.
The key, says Yeh, is humility. Asking locals for aid, not being afraid to sweep out massive amounts of trash, putting rubble to good use in a mosaic, and making alliances with drug runners who also know how to get every other kind of resource are the secrets of success. Through humility and patience, the whole spirit of a community can be remade. For more information on Yeh, visit http://barefootartists.org/