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Lily Yeh: Transplanted to Grow in the U.S.
Writer:Joecy Wu   Section:   From:You May   Publish:05/07/2014   View:1005

You May is so honored to interview artist Lily Yeh, who received the Leadership for a 

Changing World Award from the Ford Foundation. Lily Yeh talked with us about her struggles

of adapting to the foreign land, finding the real self and paving out her own way as an artist in

the U.S.. 

This article is only part of the whole story. To read the complete story and our exclusive 

interview with Lily Yeh, subscribe to our magazine for free.

                 (Trailer of the documentary The Barefoot Artist that features Lily Yeh)

Meet Lily Yeh

The mosaic art garden was designed and built by Lily Yeh. She started with changing one

vacant lot, and spent the next 20 years leading local residents in creating 120 more

gardens and parks, injecting vitality to declined neighborhoods. Along the way, she founded

The Village of Arts and Humanities, a community-based nonprofit organization for renovating

abandoned homes, creating educational programs, holding art workshops, and running after-school programs, a youth theater and community celebrations.

                                                   (The Ile-Ife Garden in North Philly)

The healing power of the art garden expanded far beyond North Philly as Lily carried her

talents to many other of the world’s most broken communities. She painted huge angels and

flowers in the worst slums in Nairobi, – and held workshops on both art and HIV/AIDS

prevention. In Rwanda, she built the Rugerero Genocide Memorial to provide a home for the

bones of genocide victims, and taught the survivors skills.

Culture Shock

Lily was born in war-torn China in 1943 during the Japanese occupation. Her father

was a general in the Chinese army and became widely known for several key victories

against the Japanese.  Her mother was among the first few female college

students in the renowned church university in Beijing.Lily and her family moved to

Taiwan at age 7 where she developed a fascination with traditional Chinese landscape


In 1963, 22-year-old Lily Yeh moved to the US to study art at the University of Pennsylvania in 

Philadelphia. The food was a culture shock. Lily recalled “the American students liked to eat

salads and cheese. To me, uncooked leaves and fermented milk were terrible.“

Language was also a significant challenge for Lily, even with her undergraduate degree in

English.She struggled to understand fast English filled with slang. Ashamed of her poor

communication skills,“I kept my mouth shut for the first year.”

               (Lily Yeh also felt lost when she just moved in the U.S. Photo by Xian Zun Guo)

Lily tried casual conversations with American students to practice her English, but found

little common ground. She found friends and support through activities organized by the 

Chinese students association. However, her professor pushed Lily back out of this comfort 

zone. ”If you only spend time with Chinese students then you won’t learn much American 

culture - and your English will not improve.”

Modern Art, Traditional Path

The world of art was also changing dramatically in the 1960’s. Rather than follow the 

traditional techniques developed by ancient masters, students were creating new art forms. 

Sketches and still life gave way to visual art, pop art, performance art, minimalism and 

post-modern impressionists. 

Lily found herself feeling lost, searching for new ways to express herself. 

After obtaining her Master’s degree in Fine Art, Lily started her teaching career in the US. 

She taught Asian, Muslim and Indian art classes, and eventually became a tenured full 

professor. Her own skills grew, and her art was showcased in personal art exhibitions at 

leading galleries. She travelled widely, fell in love, and married. Twenty years passed and 

she achieved her career goals, but deep inside felt lost and unsettled.

Local Point of Inflection

In 1986, a dance artist from North Philadelphia, Arthur Hall, invited Lily to create an art

garden on a vacant lot in North Philadelphia. The neighborhood had long ago lost hope,

but Lily saw the possibilities.Lily presented her proposal to a local foundation, and they

granted her $2500 to build her design. This small, unusual project became a significant

turning point in Lily’s life.

                           (Lily Yeh worked with Children and Volunteers in North Philly)

The art garden was Lily’s treasure. She felt a genuine, deep connection to both the project

and the neighborhood; she realized she had found herself in a vacant lot. Lily’s motivation

to continue returning to the art garden came from her heart. “I just want to create something

beautiful. This is a place nobody wants. Let’s work together to improve it. When it’s done, the

beauty belongs to all.” 

During the next ten years, Lily helped grow The Village into a multifaceted arts and cultural

center,offering arts classes to children and adults and providing professional, social and

spiritual enrichment opportunities. In 2002, after her tenure at The Village, Lily started

Barefoot Artists, anon-profit that brings the transformative power of art to the most 

impoverished communities in the world.

     (Lily Yeh created was in the Balata refugee camp in Palestinia. photograph: Teresa Yeh)

Today, Lily Yeh is 72 and lives in a modest house on a quiet street Philadelphia. She continues

her work in the world’s neediest neighborhoods, both in person and through Barefoot Artists.

You May magazine sat down with Lily to discuss her life and experiences as an immigrant

Chinese woman who built a new life in the U.S.

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