Art has the power to mend broken communities, says renowned artist

Whether in the inner city of Philadelphia or Beijing, in a Palestinian refugee camp or the Rwandan countryside, meaningful public art created by the community has the power to mend "broken places," said renowned artist Lily Yeh, who spent three days on campus Oct. 23-25.

Yeh, founder of the nonprofit arts organization Barefoot Artists, professor at the University of the Arts and author of "Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms," shared such insights from her 25 years of experience making "transformative" art with a packed audience in the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art's new wing lecture room, Oct. 24. Her talk helped celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Cornell-affiliated Center for Transformative Action.

Making art is about more than creating beautiful things to gaze at, she said. "Art is for human dignity. [It] is like striking fire in winter; it brings warmth and light."

Yeh said that her work only reached "maturity" in 1986, when she seized an opportunity to renovate and decorate an abandoned lot in North Philadelphia for local children even though she felt unprepared to make outdoor art, lead an urban community project or work with children in a neighborhood she was told was sure to reject her efforts.

However, Yeh said she was more "afraid to become a coward" than she was to fail. "If you don't rise to the occasion, the best of you will die, and the rest will not amount to anything," she said.

With a crew of enthusiastic children and neighborhood volunteers working under her guidance, Yeh transformed a series of dilapidated public areas in North Philadelphia with colorful murals, sculptures and mosaics, each full of meaning and grounded in community folklore.

Yeh named the collected projects the "Village of Arts and Humanities," and used that model of transformative community art to expand her work to other countries through Barefoot Artists in 2004.

Creating mosaics, she said, is a particularly apt art form for broken communities, not only because children easily pick up the technique but also because of what they represent: "Mosaics are broken pieces," said Yeh, "…but soon our creativity puts the design together, and it becomes something powerful and inspiring."

The mosaics tell the children "we can make our life renewed and beautiful," Yeh said.

Everyone can "make art" if they are given the chance, she said. "What we need is to awaken everyone's creativity," she said. "That's our gift as humans, to be born with creativity and imagination."

While at Cornell, Yeh spoke to an undergraduate class on social entrepreneurship, at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center and to the student body of Ithaca High School. She also led an art workshop with artists and art teachers, co-sponsored by the Johnson Museum of Art.

Paul Bennetch '12 is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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