Meditation Park. Lily Yeh, artist and project director. Construction by Village construction crew. "Tree of Life” mural designed by Yeh; mosaics by James Maxton.

Lily Yeh's Art of Transformation, continued...

    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 Philadelphia’s University of the Arts. Though excited by the possibilities of the new world she’d discovered, she knew there was something she’d 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.
    Crossing that most subtle border from painter to artist entailed still another life-changing journey for Yeh—a spiritual emigration of sorts, as she describes it. And a most unexpected one by art-world standards. Though she didn’t 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.
    Geographically, 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, it’s 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 $10,000—less 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 neighborhood’s properties were vacant.
    Yet 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.
    “It really is through China that I came into contact with the neighborhood, which is a strange coincidence,” she says. “I’d 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.”
    One of Yeh’s 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.
    “I’d known Arthur and admired his work,” Yeh remembers, “but real contact began then. He’d seen some of my gallery installations of indoor gardens and told me about an abandoned lot next to his building, mentioning that it’d be great if somebody came up there to create an outdoor garden in that spot.”
    Thus began “Ile-Efe,” Yeh’s 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.”
    It 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 block—surrounded then, during the height of the crack epidemic, by open-air drug bazaars—from dangers.
    One person who was key to Yeh’s 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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