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.