The Barefoot Artist

Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh, Image thanks to The Bare­foot Artist, barefootartistmovie.com

Next Wednes­day, The Bare­foot Artist—a doc­u­men­tary about the unusu­al career of Lily Yeh—will have a spe­cial pre­view screen­ing at the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art. Go if you can. It’s a chance to get a deep­er look at this artist, who’s trav­eled to “bro­ken places,” as she calls them, work­ing on projects that use “the pow­er of art to rebuild com­mu­ni­ties” (also her words). Over the past twen­ty years she’s worked in North Philadel­phia, in a des­o­late slum in Nairo­bi, a school for migrant work­ers in Bei­jing, and on a geno­cide memo­r­i­al in Rwan­da, always cat­alyz­ing the ener­gy of the peo­ple in those places to cre­ate some­thing they can con­tin­ue on their own.

Lily Yeh came to the U.S. from Tai­wan, already trained in Chi­nese land­scape paint­ing. Her work to reclaim an aban­doned lot in North Philadel­phia grew into the Vil­lage of Arts and Human­i­ties, with an abun­dance of parks, arts and youth pro­grams. When I wrote about her work for Art in Amer­i­ca as the Vil­lage cel­e­brat­ed its tenth birth­day, I tried to show how what she was doing, and is still doing, is her art—not just a very suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ty art project. The term rela­tion­al art may be the best art-world term to cov­er the thing she does, and it does take in com­mu­ni­ty-based work like the French artist JR’s mas­sive gueril­la pho­to instal­la­tions in Rio’s fave­las. But there’s some­thing so open-heart­ed about Lily’s work; I like the idea of “pub­lic art as a spir­i­tu­al path,” the title of a recent arti­cle that talks about her work. What we call it may not mat­ter, but I’ll be think­ing about this as I watch the movie.

If you sub­scribe to this blog, I’ll send you a copy of my review of Lily Yeh’s work, which includes a descrip­tion of one of my favorite art-per­for­mance moments ever.

The Bare­foot Artist, direct­ed by Glenn Hol­sten and Daniel Traub, at the Philadel­phia Muse­um of Art, Wednes­day, June 19 at 7 p.m. Free with admis­sion.

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