Park. Lily Yeh, artist and project director. Construction by Village
construction crew. "Tree of Life mural designed by Yeh;
mosaics by James Maxton.
Yeh's Art of Transformation,
Yeh spent several years
adapting, with some success, to modernist Western art, forgetting all
about brushes and landscapes, working her way into galleries and museums
in Philadelphia and other cities by painting in more fashionable contemporary
styles. She also earned a plum teaching position at Philadelphias University
of the Arts. Though excited by the possibilities of the new world shed
discovered, she knew there was something shed lost. I enjoyed working
in the gallery scene, but I could never really give myself over to it,
she reflects. I was still seeking something else, something that Chinese
landscape painting had instilled in me, which was the sense of what the
tradition calls a luminous place, a place where I could locate
the sacred in the mundane. She had, she gradually realized, become accomplished
as a painter, but was still not yet an artist.
that most subtle border from painter to artist entailed still another
life-changing journey for Yeha spiritual emigration of sorts, as she
describes it. And a most unexpected one by art-world standards. Though
she didnt realize it at the time, it would involve a move away from creating
paintings as commodities for galleries and collectors to a new kind of
art rooted in a sphere considered alien to art.
North Philadelphia is less than two miles from the Center City bistros,
galleries and art schools around which Yeh had lived in the 1970s and
1980s. Socially and culturally, though, its a world apart. Once a vibrant
manufacturing center, the primarily African-American neighborhood, decimated
by a generation of disinvestment, by the mid-1980s had unemployment rates
exceeding 30 percent and a median household income of under $10,000less
than half that of the rest of the city. Two-thirds of North Philadelphia
households lived below the federal poverty level, and nearly one-third
of the neighborhoods properties were vacant.
it was to this neighborhood that Yeh became drawn in 1986. Ironically,
the catalyst bringing her to North Philadelphia was a series of visits
to China she had made in the early eighties.
really is through China that I came into contact with the neighborhood,
which is a strange coincidence, she says. Id been helping the city
of Philadelphia to establish a cultural exchange with Chinese artists.
So when China sent three delegations here they asked me to help them.
of Yehs roles was to show the visitors African-American artistic accomplishments,
specifically the work of Arthur Hall. Hall, a cultural impresario and
mainstay of the North Philadelphia community, had been living in the 2500
block of Germantown Avenue since the late 1950s. In the 1960s he had launched
a dance ensemble and African-American cultural center which for years
had brought dance, theatre and visual arts to the area. By 1986, though,
federal and state budget cutbacks had taken their toll on the project.
known Arthur and admired his work, Yeh remembers, but real contact began
then. Hed seen some of my gallery installations of indoor gardens and
told me about an abandoned lot next to his building, mentioning that itd
be great if somebody came up there to create an outdoor garden in that
began Ile-Efe, Yehs first North Philadelphia project, and the one which,
she now believes, brought her experience as an artist full circle. When
I started work on that abandoned lot, I was mighty scared, she admits.
I was a Chinese woman from the outside with no knowledge of how to build
a park. Friends had said that my work would be destroyed because of tensions
between Asians and African-Americans. I wanted to run away, but there
was a voice inside me that led me on.
was in this context, Yeh recounts, that she learned the value of humility.
Since I knew nothing about the neighborhood I had to learn to ask people
to help me. I needed to engage the neighborhood, the children and also
the street people and drug users who hung around the block. With their
help Yeh transformed what had been for nearly a decade a visual blight
into a colorful park, decorated with murals of guardian angels designed
to protect the blocksurrounded then, during the height of the crack epidemic,
by open-air drug bazaarsfrom dangers.
person who was key to Yehs overcoming her isolation was JoJo Williams,
a local who, though unemployed and a drug addict, possessed, she says,
a fiery, friendly spirit. For small stipends of five or ten dollars
Williams began helping Yeh clear out the rubble and debris from abandoned
lots, becoming in the process her protector, and a legendary force in
the neighborhood until his death from cancer in 1995.
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