Lily Yeh

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Lily Yeh
Lily Yeh by Daniel Traub (3).jpg
Lily Yeh in 2013
Born1941 (age 78–79)
Guizhou, China
NationalityChinese American
EducationUniversity of Pennsylvania School of Design
National Taiwan University
MovementUrban Alchimist
AwardsDaughter of Greatness Award (2015)[1]
ATLAS Gold Medal of Honor (2010)[2]
Leadership for a Changing World Award, Ford Foundation (2003)[3]
Rudy Bruner Gold Medal Award (2001)[4]
Pew Fellowship in the Arts (1992)[5]

Lily Yeh (born 1941, Guizhou, China) is an artist whose work has taken her to communities throughout the world. She grew up in Taiwan and moved to the United States in 1963 to attend the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Fine Arts. She was a professor of painting and art history at University of the Arts (Philadelphia) from 1968 until 1998.[6] As founder and executive director of The Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia from 1968 to 2004, she helped create a national model in creative place-making and community building through the arts. In 2002, Yeh pursued her work internationally, founding Barefoot Artists, Inc., to bring the transformative power of art to impoverished communities around the globe through participatory, multifaceted projects that foster community empowerment, improve the physical environment, promote economic development and preserve indigenous art and culture. In addition to the United States, she has carried out projects in several other countries.

She is the subject of the feature-length documentary film The Barefoot Artist directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub.[7][8] Yeh has been included in the Asian American Arts Centre's artasiamerica digital archive.


The Village of Arts and Humanities[edit]

Lily Yeh co-founded The Village of Arts and Humanities in 1989. The project began as a simple park-building project in North Philadelphia in 1986 involving neighborhood children, and developed into a private, nonprofit, community-based organization dedicated to neighborhood revitalization through the arts.[9] By 2004, the Village had become a professional organization with an annual budget of $1.3 million and a dedicated staff of sixteen full-time and ten part-time employees including a four-person construction crew. During the last decade of her sojourn, the organization has yearly served over thousands of low-income, primarily African-American youth and families, covering several neighborhoods within a 260 square block area in North Philadelphia and transformed more than 120 vacant lots into gardens and parks.[10] They have also renovated vacant homes, creating art workshops, a youth theater and educational programs.[11]

The Village received many national awards including the Coming Up Taller Award from the President's Committee on Arts and Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington, D.C. in 2000 and the gold medal Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence from the Bruner Foundation in Cambridge, MA in 2001. In 2003, the Village received a Commonwealth of Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence. In 2007, The Village received the prestigious Champion in Action from Citizens Bank for its building community through the arts effort since 1986. In 2004, Yeh left the Village of Arts and Humanities to pursue other work internationally.[12]

Unimaginable Isolation: Stories from Graterford Prison[edit]

In 2001,Yeh, in collaboration with artists Gerry Givnish and Glenn Holsten, launched a three-year, multi-level interactive project among long-term inmates in the Graterford Prison in Skippack Township,Pennsylvania. The effort resulted in several multi-media exhibitions across Philadelphia, including the Eastern State Penitentiary, a U.S. National Historic Landmark, the University of the Arts, the Painted Bride Art Center and the Village of Arts and Humanities.

American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore[edit]

In 2005, Yeh was invited as guest curator by the American Visionary Art Museum. She introduced and curated the wall-sized papercut pieces by the late Chinese folk artist Ku Shu-Lan in the exhibition Race, Class, Gender ≠ Character at AVAM. Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, Director and Founder of the Museum dedicated its 11th mega-exhibition to Lily Yeh because “her work so artfully and lovingly transcends race, class, nationality and gender.”[13]

The Bridge Over Barriers Project, Salt Lake City, Utah[edit]

Invited by NeighborWorks of Salt Lake City, Yeh led a major public art project from 2005 to 2009, which transformed the eyesore of a 22,000 feet of cement-surfaced viaduct over a ten-lane interstate highway into a place of community pride. The process engaged the participation of 25 local artists and 1,500 neighborhood adults and children. It is the most ambitious, community-based public art in the State of Utah.

Urban Alchemy, Milwaukee, Wisconsin[edit]

The Urban Alchemy Project led by Lily Yeh since 2014 began a dialogue to address racial inequality, separation, segregation, brokenness, poverty, lack of community-driven solutions, disempowerment and isolation. The projects aims to allow residents to see how art can help to heal and create as well as participate in a process within a unique environment that bridges neighborhoods. Lily Yeh co-created with artists, neighborhood residents, children, and volunteers on an art installation that transformed a sterile and unfrequented urban space — Holton Viaduct Swing Park — into a colorful and jubilant place. Urban Alchemy also worked with The City’s Department of Public Works to grant permission and timeline for community based installations.

Ecuador - Art projects in Salinas and Ambato[edit]

In 2000, Lily Yeh traveled to Ecuador with artist Andres Chamorro to conduct workshops in visual and performing arts for youths and adults from different communities in the highlands of Ecuador, including Quito, Salinas, and Ambato. In addition, they created a “Tree of Life” mural for the Ambato Special School for handicapped children.

Haiti - The Tree of Life Mural Project, Cité Soleil[edit]

In 2010, Yeh conducted workshops for children and handicapped adults in a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince. She conducted workshops for dozens of children in Cité Soleil, the largest slum on the edge of the capital, in making dream flags, drawings about themselves and creating painted poles. Working together, Yeh and the residents in the camp transformed a ruined wall into a site decorated with the Haitian Tree of Life.

Kenya - The Community Transformation Project in Korogocho, Nairobi[edit]

Supported by Lila Wallace Arts International Fellowship in 1993-94, Yeh took on a grassroots land transformation project in Korogocho, Nairobi, Kenya. Situated next to a city dump, Korogocho, a community of 150,000, is one of the worst slums in Nairobi. Collaborating with her hosts, Paa Ya Paa Art Center and St. John’s Catholic Church, Yeh organized children and adults in the community to convert a bleak churchyard on the edge of the dumpsite into a brightly painted garden. Through her effort, the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia collaborated with several artists from Korogocho and Nairobi in the late 1990s. The Village sponsored a two-year arts program for 200 street children in Korogocho. In 2004, collaborating with Life Learning group in the community, Yeh conducted workshops for hundreds of youth in their HIV/AIDS prevention program in Korogocho and its five adjacent communities. Returning in 2007 and collaborating with community social workers, she led art and mural painting workshops for street and addicted glue-sniffing children.

Ivory Coast - The Niemassou Art Project[edit]

In 1998, Yeh and theater director German Wilson worked together to conduct painting and performance workshops at Niemassou, a tiny rural village outside of Odienne in the Northwest corner of Ivory Coast.

Ghana - Jamestown public square transformation project[edit]

Traveling to Accra, Ghana in 2002, Yeh collaborated with educator Heidi Owu and community leaders to carry out a land transformation project in an impoverished neighborhood in Jamestown,[14] located in the old section of the capital city Accra. The project engaged hundreds of children and adults in transforming a bleak courtyard into a public space full of patterns and colors.

Barefoot Artists[edit]

Lily Yeh at Barefoot Artists

In 2003, Lily Yeh founded the non-profit organization Barefoot Artists Inc. Using the same concept and model used in Philadelphia, the Barefoot Artists work to train and empower local residents, organize communities, and take action to use the power of art to transform impoverished communities. Recently, Yeh has worked on projects in ten countries including Rwanda, Kenya, Ecuador, and China.[15] She discusses her work at the Dandelion School in Beijing, China in her book Awakening Creativity (New Village Press, 2010).

The Rwanda Healing Project - Rugerero Genocide Memorial[edit]

As a part of the Barefoot Artists Inc, Lily Yeh founded the Rwanda Healing Project. This project is working with children, using art in communities to bring peace in villages that have experienced the genocide and civil war. She designed the Rugerero Genocide Memorial Monument Park in 2004 and it was built in 2005 with help from hundreds of local villagers.[16] Yeh launched multiple programs in healing, education, and job opportunities to transform the survivors and the Twa villages in Rugerero from destitution and grief into vibrant and joyful self-sustaining communities. The Rugerero Survivors Village Transformation honors the living by equipping the surviving family members with economic resources and tools to heal, learn skills, and take actions to better their lives.


Invited by the Chinese Cultural Ministry during the 80’s, Yeh conducted lecture tours in twelve cities including Beijing, Tianjin, Chongqing, Hongzhou, Shouzhou, Wuhan, and Uramchi. In 1984, she assisted the city of Philadelphia in establishing a multi-leveled cultural exchange program with its sister city Tianjin in China. In 1986, as a visiting artist, she presented a series of lectures in Lhasa, Tibet. In 1987, she participated in the renowned Yellow River Region Folk Art Expedition conducted by the Central Institute of Fine Arts in Beijing. In 2003, returned to China and conducted art workshops with the students in a remote village 2 hours north of Beijing. In 2004, returned to Beijing to work with senior citizens, and also led a mural painting project involving numerous youth and adults at Xin Chih Elementary School for children of migrant workers

The Dandelion School Transformation Project, Beijing[edit]

Working with Zheng Hong, the Principal of Dandelion Middle School, Yeh launched the Dandelion Transformation Project in 2005. Situated on the outskirts of Beijing, Dandelion School provides educational opportunities for the children of migrant workers living at the bottom strata of the society. The project engaged the entire school community of 670 members - students, teachers, staff, and volunteers, in a co-creative process to transform the formerly sterile and bleak school environment into a place of beauty and joy and a place that inspires learning, creativity and exploration.

The Chi Chong School Mosaic Mural Project, Taipei[edit]

Invited in 2004 by The Culture Ministry of Taipei to participate in its Public Art Forum and Festival, Yeh was commissioned to create a mural for a five-story building located in Chi Chong School for handicapped and hearing-impaired children. Engaging art teachers and students in the design process, Yeh incorporated many of the images emerged from the art workshops in her design for the mural. The curator of the project mobilized the Chi Chong school community, a tile making factory and volunteers from all sectors of life to participate in the making of the mural. Over 400 people from different cities in Taiwan took part in the project, which was among the top nominees for a prestigious 2005 public art award in Taiwan.

Taiwan, The Painted Labyrinth Project, Hua Lian[edit]

Lily Yeh designed and led the installation of a 150-meter diameter labyrinth containing 200 pieces of 10 foot tall painted drift wood at the foothills of the Hua Don Mountains on the east coast of Taiwan. This installation is one of the eight environmental sculptures commissioned by the Masadi – Green Wonder, an international art project and exhibition sponsored by the Hualien Forestry Department. The project engaged the participation of 300 school children of the indigenous Ahmei Tribe and 200 senior citizens and volunteers.

Taiwan – Revitalization and Preservation Project in Taitung County[edit]

The Chong An and Da Niao villages are located in the remote mountainous area in Taitung County at the south-east coast of Taiwan. Like other Taiwanese aboriginal tribes, the Ah Mei and Paiwan people have been persecuted through generations. Their land was appropriated driving the communities further and further to the remote shores and mountains of Eastern Taiwan. Around 2005, a group of activist citizens began to put their attention to these aboriginal tribes of Taiwan to save the culture and tradition of the villages through education, agriculture, and economic initiatives. To make their effort more visible, Lily Yeh was invited to participate in 2012. During her two-week visit, Yeh conducted workshops that used storytelling, art, collaborative design, and mural painting to jumpstart the project. Through the process, local artists and leaders emerged lifting the community spirit. The work continued throughout the year. In Da Niao village, participants have completed the transformation of a derelict and forgotten building into a colorful structure decorated with totem images of the Paiwan tribe and idyllic landscapes. The project imbued the tribe people with new pride and hope.

In Chong An village, the activist group converted a run-down traditional structure and its surroundings into a vibrant environment, brightened up by images that emerged from the workshops in which children and adults worked together. The three-year project made the place visible and helped the villagers to bond in a new way.

Taiwan, Awakening Creativity Project, An Kang[edit]

Located on the outskirts of Taipei, the An Kang neighborhood has deteriorated due to the concentration of low-income residents. In 2013, Lily Yeh led a three-day workshop for children and adults living in An Kang public housing in a poor and neglected area to imagine and create together their re-developed community through story-sharing and art. The result was presented to the Urban Redevelopment Department of Taiwan University which oversaw the An Kang redevelopment project for the city of Taipei.[17]

The Children’s Art Project, Damascus[edit]

While visiting Iraqi refugees in Jordan and Syria, Yeh collaborated with activist Noor Sheik Ogly and several Red Crescent members, and launched an art event with a simple exhibition and a workshop at Al Tijari Park in Damascus. Together they engaged two dozen of children and some of their parents in photography, drawing, painting and story-telling. Based on their drawings, children created a large and colorful painting together. Yeh turned the portrait photos of the children, their stories and art works into a colorful hand-made book, which was exhibited in Beijing, China in 2008 and then given to Project Learn School in Philadelphia as an exchange present.

Nablus, Balata Refugee Camp, Al Aqaba[edit]

Adjacent to the city of Nablus, Balata is the largest refugee camp in the West Bank. Working with volunteers, leaders of the Balata Women Center, students of the Balata Girls’ School, and local youth, Yeh created a 14’x 25’ mural, the Palestinian Tree of Peace. She returned in 2012 to work with residents to transform a narrow and derelict pedestrian street into a space filled with colors and beauty. In 2013, she returned with a five-membered international team to transform environments through mural painting at Balata Refugee Camp, Nablus, and Al Aqaba village.

The Dzegvi Children's Project, Tbilisi[edit]

Collaborating with filmmaker Glenn Holsten and photographer Daniel Traub, Yeh traveled in 1999 to Dzegvi, a little village nearby Tbilisi containing twenty families and 110 street children, to conduct workshops with children in drawing, painting and photography.[18] Children and several family groups took photos of each other, their activities and environment. At the end of the project, an exhibition of 15 big, life size banners of individual and group figures and hundreds of the photographs were exhibited at Dzegvi. The project also produced a 12-minute film describing the Dzegvi community through the eyes of one particular family.

Görlitz, Germany[edit]

In 2016, Lily Yeh and the Barefoot Artists were invited to Görlitz by a group of local artists under the auspices of "Bohemian Crossings".[19][20] Located in East Germany, Görlitz and its people have also known many hardships, most recently under communist-rule. High unemployment, dwindling populations and rows of abandoned or decaying buildings speak to the forced obliteration of history and loss of identity which they experienced. The Barefoot Artists work together with the international artists to bring the memory and the cultural heritage back to the people.

Selected awards and honors[edit]

  • 1992 Fellow, Pew Fellowship in the Arts
  • 1993 Lila Wallace Arts International Fellowship for Kenya and Ivory Coast
  • 1994 Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship
  • 1996 Leadership Award, Philadelphia Prudential Foundation
  • 1998 ArtsLink Fellowship, Dzegvi, Republic of Georgia
  • 1999 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, Massachusetts College of Art
  • 2000 Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, University of the Arts
  • 2000 Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Arts and Leadership
  • 2001 – 2008 Art Commission, City of Philadelphia, PA
  • 2001 Tikkun Olam (Healing the World) Award, Philadelphia Congregation Kol Ami
  • 2001 Rudy Bruner Gold Medal Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation[21]
  • 2002 Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters, University of Massachusetts[22]
  • 2002 AHN Award, Arts and Healing Network[23]
  • 2003 Leadership for a Changing World Award, Ford Foundation[24]
  • 2004 The International Council of Fine Arts Dean's Award
  • 2004 Honorary Doctor Degree, Villanova University
  • 2005 Achievement in the Arts Award, Philadelphia Watercolor Society
  • 2005 – 2006 Guest Curator and Honoree of Race, Class, Gender ≠ Character exhibition, American Visionary Art Museum[25]
  • 2006 Member, May delegation to Iran, Fellowship of Reconciliation,
  • 2006 Design Award, Society for Environmental Design for Rwanda Project
  • 2007 Honorary Doctor Degree, Syracuse University, NY[26]
  • 2009 Fleisher Art Memorial Founder’s Award[27]
  • 2009 The Academy Gold Medal of Honor, The Academy of Transdisciplinary Learning and Advanced Studies[28]
  • 2009 Medal of Accomplishment Award, Society for Design & Process Science
  • 2010 Special Congressional Recognition, United States Congress and the Philadelphia Chapter of The National Organization for Women (NOW)
  • 2011 Honorary Doctor Degree, Moore College of Art, Philadelphia, PA[29]
  • 2012 Urban Leadership Award, Penn Institute for Urban Research, University of Pennsylvania[30]
  • 2013 Creativity and Community Service Award, Rugerero, Rwanda
  • 2013 TEDxCornell, Center for Transformative Action, Ithaca
  • 2014 Purpose Prize Fellow,, second act of the greater good[31]
  • 2015 Signator, The Fuji Declaration: Reawakening the Divine Spark in the Heart of Humanity, Tokyo, Japan[32]
  • 2015 Art & Activism Award at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, NY, Living Kindness Foundation[33]
  • 2015 Muhammad Ali Center, Daughter of Greatness, Louisville, KY[34]
  • 2015 Cabinet, U. S. Department of Arts and Culture, the nation's newest people-powered department[35]
  • 2016 Steering Committee Member, Creative Placemaking Colloquium sponsored by City Parks Alliance, Philadelphia[36]
  • 2016 Visiting Artist, Blackfeet Community in Browning, MO[37]
  • 2016 Honored Participant at the Soul of WoMen Global Network Events in Japan, coinciding with the first anniversary of the Fuji Declaration for world peace, May, Tokyo and the Fuji Sanctuary[38]
  • 2016 Rockefeller Bellagio Arts & Literary Resident Fellow, Bellagio, Italy, March[39]

Publications by Lily Yeh[edit]

  • Community Building Through Art and Youth Participation, Humanistic Educational Journal 11, Taiwan, 2005.
  • Barefoot Artists: Healing the World, One Artist at a Time, Designer/builder, A Journal of the Human Environment, Nov./Dec. 2006.
  • My Story, "Shout Out, Women of Color Respond to Violence", edited by Maria Ochoa & Barbara K. Ige, eds, 2007.[40]
  • How Art Can Heal Broken Places, Moonrise: The Power Of Women Leading From The Heart, Nina Simon, ed., 2011.[41]
  • Painting Hope in the World, in "Dream of a Nation" (A Vision for a Better America), edited by Tyson Miller, 2011.[42]
  • Awakening Creativity, Dandelion School Blossoms, New Village Press, 2011.[43]
  • The Rwanda Healing Project, The Harvard Advocate, Winter 2013.


  • The Barefoot Artist. Biographical feature-length documentary about Lily Yeh, directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub, 2013.[44]


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  2. ^ "Academy Gold Medal of Honor Award". Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  3. ^ "Ford Foundation Announces Winners of Leadership for a Changing World Awards; 17 Recognized for Leadership in U.S. Communities". Science Blog. 2003-10-07. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  4. ^ "Village of Arts and Humanities". Rudy Bruner Award. 1999-01-05. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  5. ^ "Lily Yeh - Collaborators & Colleagues - The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage". 1992-06-01. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  6. ^ [1]
  7. ^ "In 'Barefoot Artist,' Lily Yeh confronts painful past in her journey to heal communities through art | PBS NewsHour". 2012-03-11. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  8. ^ "The Barefoot Artist by WHYY Public Media | Free Listening on SoundCloud". 2017-01-13. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  9. ^ "About Us – The Village of Arts and Humanities". Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  10. ^ All That We Share: How to Save the Economy, the Environment, the Internet, Democracy, Our Communities and Everything Else that Belongs to All of Us with Bill McKibben Introduction (2011) ISBN 978-1-59558-499-1
  11. ^ "Lily Yeh". Americans Who Tell The Truth. 2015-10-27. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  12. ^ "Lily Yeh". Project for Public Spaces. Retrieved August 13, 2012.
  13. ^ "American Visionary Art Museum - Race, Class, Gender ≠ Character". Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  14. ^ "Lily Yeh" (PDF). Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  15. ^ [2]
  16. ^ Pompilio, Natalie (Dec 20, 2011). "Lily Yeh: Beauty in Broken Places". Yes Magazine. Retrieved August 13, 2012.
  17. ^ "An Kang, Taipei, Taiwan (2013)". Barefoot Artists. 2014-06-20. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  18. ^ Zukowska, Marzena (2017-01-11). "Using Art to Empower Poor Communities". The Solutions Journal. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  19. ^ "Gorlitz, Germany Update 3 | Barefoot Artists | Create & Be Well". 2016-08-21. Retrieved 2017-01-23.
  20. ^ "Camp - bohemiancrossingss Webseite!". Retrieved 2017-01-23.
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  43. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2017-03-15. Retrieved 2017-03-14.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  44. ^ "The Barefoot Artist". Retrieved 2017-01-23.

External links[edit]