In a Philadelphia ghetto, an artist with as much energy as vision replaces despair with a mosaic of creativity, hard work and joy.
Give Lily Yeh an inch and she’ll take any yard that’s been abandoned. Seven years ago the spunky artist was invited to paint a mural in the heart of a North Philadelphia ghetto. She stayed on to create additional renewal projects, bringing hope along with color and light to otherwise benighted corners of Germantown Avenue. A ‘Village of Arts and Humanities” is what Yeh calls the complex of gardens, parks and renovated buildings that she and volunteers have left in their busy wake. Working in a community where half of all households subsist below the poverty level, Yeh first reclaimed a vacant lot, transforming it into a sculpture garden with the aid of area children (right). Part Huck Finn and part Wonder Woman, Yeh, a professor of painting and Oriental art history at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, gradually transformed neighborhood adults from skeptical bystanders to passionate participants in the twenty-some projects that now comprise the Village. James “Big Man” Maxton, a recovering substance abuser, chanced on Yeh one day and remained to help create Angel Alley, a mosaic of stately Ethiopian angels. “It’s work, but it’s fun,” says Victor Jackson, who was unemployed when he began helping Maxton plant a flower garden. He’s now foreman of the latest addition-in-progress. Called Meditation Park, it reflects the neighborhood’s cultural diversity in influences that range from African architecture to Chinese gardens and Islamic courtyards.
Yeh’s husband, Stephen Sayre, a Harvard Law grad who works as a writer, supervises housing renovation and also develops and maintains educational programs, among them a sewing class and a community vegetable garden. In “Art, Math and Construction,” which he teaches with volunteer Heidi Warren, youngsters measure actual houses and then fabricate scale models. Under the guidance of New Mexico artist Alejandro Lopez, the kids assembled a bench from salvaged construction materials. An artist who sees her role as creating “the skeleton work of building community,” the self-effacing Yeh is thrilled that the spark of her personal vision has ignited. “The current buzz phrase,” she says, “is ‘art for social change.’ Art may or may not change society, but making art is like striking a match. It invites other people to light the candles of their imaginations, and it begins to illuminate the darkness of despair.” — Judith Stein