‘Barefoot Artist’ documents Lily Yeh’s journey through the ‘broken places’

As a young girl in Taiwan, Lily Yeh studied Chinese landscape art. The monochrome ink paintings of trees, rocks, and water remain the touchstone of her art and life. She calls them “dustless.”

“The world ‘dust’ does not refer to anything physical,” Yeh wrote in her 2011 book, “Awakening Creativity.” “It points to the mental pollution of desire, longing, attachment, and greed, all emotions emanating from the ego.”

A new documentary film about Yeh, “The Barefoot Artist,” follows her as she makes public art projects in some of the most broken places on earth, places that are literally and figuratively “dusty”: a massive garbage dump outside of Nairobi, Kenya; a Palestinian refugee camp where 23,000 people live within just 0.7 square mile; and the floorless homes of Rwandan genocide survivors.

After struggling to find her voice as a painter at the University of Pennsylvania, at the time steeped in the pop art of the 1960s, Yeh discovered her talent for channeling the stories of the disenfranchised. In a blighted neighborhood in North Philadelphia, she created a community sculpture park out of several contiguous vacant lots. The project became the multifaceted center, The Village of Arts and Humanities.

After 18 years of running the Village, she set out to create community art projects around the world. Photographer Daniel Traub, Yeh’s son, followed her to Rwanda where she spent eight years building a memorial park for the victims of the 1994 genocide.

Personal, artistic journeys entwine

At the same time, filmmaker Glenn Holsten was making his own short documentary about Yeh’s trip to China, when she sought reconciliation with the family her father abandoned in order to marry Yeh’s mother.

One day Holsten and Traub met, and compared notes.

“These two journeys together form a really compelling portrait. How could you not make that movie?” said Holsten in his editing room, moments after finishing the final sound mix. “Lily faces things head-on. I find her fearlessness in diving into things inspiring.”

“I’m protected by my naiveté,” said Yeh in a phone interview. A wandering artist, Yeh goes where opportunity beckons. The Rwandan project came about because someone at a conference told her about a village where survivors of the genocide were housed. The villagers came from disparate parts of the country and had no history with one another. Neighbor would not talk to neighbor. Surrounded by hundreds of villagers, people were isolated.

Yeh wanted to get everyone to collaborate on the design and construction of a public square. Then funding started to come in. She got excited. People started work on the project. Things started happening. She got more excited.

The villagers did not want a coat of paint and a hug. Healing a national wound required a design that could shoulder the burden of grief, and professional contractors.

“They said, ‘Our bones are buried above ground. That’s not the right way. We want you to build a bone chamber underground, so that our loved ones can truly rest,'” said Yeh. “That’s when I became totally frightened.”

Yeh not only completed the Genocide Memorial Park in Rugerero District of Rwanda, where thousand come to mourn the tragedy of their nation, but also created a micro-funding program to help impoverished villagers start small businesses.

Finding herself amid the broken places

“I never intended to build community, or to heal other people. I never thought I had to ability to do that. Who am I?  I just know how to put paint on walls,” said Yeh. “It’s because I want to listen. I go to broken places, where nobody has any expectations. That’s where I found the freedom to be me.”

During post-production, the filmmakers took a rough cut of the documentary to Rugerero, to show the villagers how they appear in the film and to ask for their blessing.

Emerance Mukagatare, who was slashed in the neck during the 100-day slaughter in 1994, now has small business as a seamstress.

“The time of thinking about myself has passed,” said Mukagatare on the documentary’s website. “Now I think about other things and I no longer cry.”

Yeh left the helm of the Village of Arts and Humanities on Germantown Avenue in 2004, to focus her energies elsewhere.

“I spent a very long time trying to find my path. It’s in the broken land of North Philadelphia,” said Yeh. “I had many failures. When it took form I realized that’s how I return. That’s how I can go to the dustless world — my spiritual home.”

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal