Lily Yeh is an artist and community activist who cofounded the “Village of Arts and Humanities” in the inner city of North Philadelphia in 1986. I was honored to host her as a speaker in my Creation Spirituality Master’s program.
Amid over two hundred abandoned lots, she set up community art places where citizens would come to express themselves, often using the materials straight from the streets — broken bottles and tossed beer cans, needles and the rest — to create art and foster community and learning. One of her handpicked leaders was a drug gang leader who, with Lily’s help, turned his life around and the lives of many others.
Lily has worked with communities in dire straits around the world including Rwanda, China, Ecuador, Haiti, Ghana, Kenya, Syria, and Italy. She also founded Barefoot Artist, a volunteer organization that uses the power of art to revitalize impoverished neighborhoods.
She writes: “When I see brokenness, poverty, and crime in inner cities, I also see the enormous potential and readiness for transformation and rebirth. We are creating an art form that comes from the heart and reflects the pain and sorrow of people’s lives. It also expresses joy, beauty, and love.”
Robert Shetterly, a portrait painter, accompanied Lily to a village in Rwanda after the horrible massacres there. Expecting a scary scene, Robert was amazed at the joy that welcomed Lily. He described the scene this way:
They all began running, shouting around the village, on the hard dirt between the unfinished houses that had recently been painted with murals designed by these same children under Lily’s direction. Bird and beast and decorative murals transformed the depressing gray mud brick. . . . What had happened in this land of grotesque violence to provoke such joy?
Shetterly answers his own question this way:
Lily’s magic. Accountable art. Healing art. No snake oil, no secret elixirs. It’s an art that fans the dim embers of spirit in diminished humanity. It’s one thing to decry injustice, to expose trauma, to write a report that tells a true history. It’s another to witness a small Chinese-American woman with an iron will, a bag of paint brushes, profound compassion, and unshakable belief that damaged people can heal themselves with their own art, come into a terribly depressed situation and beg to fix it — begging with the irrepressible spirit of orphaned children. The children, in a sense, give re-birth to the adults, to adult hope and adult responsibility. After the art comes co-operative work, the will to heal, the will to start over.
 “When I see brokenness, poverty, and….” Yeh, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms (Oakland, Ca: New Village Press, 2011), inside cover.
 “They all began running….the will to start over.” Ibid., 7.
Adapted from Matthew Fox, Meister Eckhart: A Mystic-Warrior for Our Times, pp. 268f.
Banner image: “Lily Yeh by Daniel Traub” Photo by Daniel Traub, Wikimedia Commons
Queries for Contemplation
How does Lily Yeh’s prophetic use of art and creativity inspire you? How many ways of adapting and translating her “magic” can you imagine doing in work worlds from education to counseling and the rest?
While Matthew Fox recognizes that Eckhart has influenced everyone from Julian of Norwich to Eckhart Tolle, Karl Marx to Carl Jung, and Annie Dillard to Anne Morrow Lindbergh, he also wants to introduce Eckhart to today’s activists addressing contemporary crises. Toward that end, Fox creates dialogues between Eckhart and Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, Rabbi Heschel, Black Elk, Karl Marx, Rumi, Adrienne Rich, Dorothee Soelle, David Korten, Anita Roddick, Lily Yeh, M.C. Richards, and many others.
Because creativity is the key to both our genius and beauty as a species but also to our capacity for evil, we need to teach creativity and to teach ways of steering this God-like power in directions that promote love of life (biophilia) and not love of death (necrophilia). Pushing well beyond the bounds of conventional Christian doctrine, Fox’s focus on creativity attempts nothing less than to shape a new ethic.