by Drew Martin
When I see a movie (in this case on Netflix) with a lowly one-star rating, I usually check to see if it is really bad or really good. Most of the time it is the former but I recently lucked out. The other day the lone star The Barefoot Artist caught my eye and it was something I am really glad I watched. It is a documentary about Lily Yeh; her work as an artist, and an emotional detour to her ancestral home on the southern island Hainan, and other parts of China to reconnect with her step-siblings who her father left behind for a harsh fate while he went off to have a good life with her mother in Taiwan.
A visual metaphor for this part of the film is when she and the various relatives and friends in China piece together an extensive and beautifully drawn map her father made of the island.
When Yeh came to America in the 60s as a young lady to study painting her dedication to traditional Chinese landscape painting was challenged by the New York artworld's emphasis on Pop Art and happenings. And while she had professional representation and envisioned a full career as a gallery artist, she ended up taking a very different and quite remarkable path, which led her to do community art projects in troubled parts of the world.
The top image here is a site she created in response to seeing a depressing animal-shed-like place for the remains of the 1994 Rwanda genocide victims. She understood that the survivors of the massacre were distraught by this situation because they felt that their loved ones could not rest in peace until they had a respectable burial site.
The picture underneath that is one of her more extensive projects - the multiple-block arts garden in Philadelphia called the Village of Arts and Humanities, which is where she really cut her teeth and assumed the role as a public artist, director, community organizer and fundraiser.
Her work transforms rough abandoned lots and other unattractive neglected spaces into colorful and peaceful oases with bright painted and tiled murals, organic sculptures, and quirky masonry walls. There is no need for validating art-world reviews of these projects, because the reward is in the faces of the communities who get to share these installed gifts.
Yeh talks about wanting to create dustless places, a term used to describe the serene environments of Chinese landscape paintings. There is a motivation in her to better sad locations through colorful art and community collaboration, and there is also a side she expresses to find peace in a world where her beloved father never felt complete after leaving his first family, and one that was also troubled through her own failed marriage. She expresses that her idea of home is not a location but that place where she feels connected in art.