Lily Yeh

Artist Lily Yeh stands in front of one of the large public mosaics that she has helped to build as a way of building community.

On Sunday artist Lily Yeh will be the keynote speaker at the ceremony celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Center for Transformative Action (CTA; formerly the Center for Religion, Ethics and Social Policy (CRESP)), but she will also be meeting with area teachers and students to introduce them to her methods for harnessing the transformative power of art to create community.

Yeh was invited to Ithaca by Anke Wessels, the executive director of CTA. In 2009 Wessels watched a recording of a presentation that Yeh gave at a Bioneers conference and found her to be a compelling speaker. “Her work is in keeping with our mission of transformative action on many levels,” said Wessels. “[She uses] creativity in art to bring people together on common ground. Individual experience becomes manifest in public art.”

Wessels described a mosaic that Yeh worked on in a North Philadelphia neighborhood. The broken pieces of tiles that produced the enormous mural were a metaphor for how imperfect individuals could together produce a beautiful whole. “It is very healing in and of itself,” Wessels said. “It brings the community together and the built environment that is transformed is a constant reminder.”

The day after she delivers her keynote address at the CTA celebration Yeh will conduct an all-day workshop with teachers and students from several Ithaca area schools. “It will be what I can offer in a nutshell,” she said. “I usually do this in a much longer time frame.” She will be imparting a basic principle of community organization, which is that people have to learn to talk among themselves.

She describes it as “building community through making art together.” The group that will come together this Saturday does not know each other well. “They won’t get to know each other in the usual way, by talking and asking questions,” she said. “They will do it through painting, through movement, and through sound. They will go through a series of exercises together. It should be fun.” Yeh will then collect feedback from the group, asking them what worked and what did not work.

After the exercises are completed they will go up to the Johnson Museum of Art to look at images in the collection related to justice and social change. That evening she will given a presentation about her work with the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia and her more recent organization, Barefoot Artists.

Wessels plans to set up a blog space so that the local group of students and teachers can continue to communicate after they go through Yeh’s workshop and inaugurate their own projects in their communities. “Lily can jump in with suggestions,” Wessels said, “and keep it going.”

The CTA director said that Yeh agreed to return to Ithaca in a year to check in on the local teachers and students. “The students will present to her what they have created,” Wessels said.

“I would love to know their progress,” Yeh said. “And I will be there to provide guidance and to monitor their progress.”

Yeh has worked with students and teachers around the country and across the globe from North Philadelphia to Rwanda to the suburbs of Beijing. As a visiting artist at the Dandelion School in China, Yeh helped the students, who are all the children of migrant workers, to create murals to brighten the drab walls of their school. The entire curriculum of the Dandelion School is a marked departure from the usual Chinese emphasis on rote learning.

In 1986 Yeh was the founding director of the Village of Arts and Humanities in Philadelphia. She did not believe that the public schools in the city were effective, calling them punitive and oppressive. “I tried to channel destructive energy into constructive energy,” she said. “The schools did not want to do transformation to the degree that I wanted.” For eighteen years she worked to broaden the urban community’s knowledge of other cultures and to engage its members in experiential learning and to make sure that learning stayed in the community. In 2004 she founded Barefoot Artists and took the idea worldwide, returning most recently from refugee camps in Palestine.

“If art is not to create human dignity for all,” she asked, “then what is it for?”

The CTA event will be held at GIAC on Sunday, October 23 starting at 1 pm and Yeh will speak at the Johnson Art Museum on Monday, October 24 at 5:15 pm.

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