Mention Lily Yeh to anyone who knows her. You’ll see eyes widen and a smile appear. She’s one of those people who seem to be navigating the world on a slightly different plane. Tiny in stature, she is grand in spirit. She speaks so passionately about creativity, wonder, and possibility that anyone listening seems to tap into those forces too. Originally from China, Lily has made a life of creative, collaborative community work, developing what she calls “compassionate living social sculpture.”
In February, we met for lunch in Philadelphia to discuss the “living” nature of her work. “All action needs to bear fruit,” says Lily. “Like nature, you don’t grow a leaf for no purpose. You don’t grow flowers for no purpose. You try to bear fruit and so it multiplies. And so for me as an artist…I work the ground and fertilize and give people goodwill. I’ve got to see something happen for my fulfillment and I’ve got to see art that has the power to transform. How do you reach that point? There are many different ways. You can have art that reflects community—community art, that’s good. Democracy. But then you need the artist’s own passion and discipline…When people see that, like a beautiful piece of music, you don’t need to know the story or how to compose or to listen, it touches you.”
Seeding thriving participatory projects around the world, Lily has become a master at dancing the line connecting the artist’s impulse and the community’s vision. “How do you let a program open to the sky and the rain and let people come in?” she asks. “People’s attention is like sunlight and people’s creativity is like rain. How do you be open to that?”
The German artist Joseph Beuys coined the phrase “social sculpture” to suggest that society itself is a work of art and that everyone’s creativity and artistry is a part of making it. “Everyone human being is an artist” Beuys wrote in 1973, and our collective endeavors constitute the “total art work of the future social order.”
Lily’s community projects are social sculptures, inviting all to participate in creating something new that can shape the shared social, cultural, and environmental context. By adding the words “compassionate” and “living,” Lily identifies what makes her social sculpture distinct. Every project starts from a deep place of compassion, infusing the project’s DNA, giving projects an organic life far beyond Lily’s presence.
Lily’s contribution to Philadelphia—the Village of Arts and Humanities—is one of her longest-running and deepest-reaching “compassionate living social sculptures.” In 1986, Lily was invited by her friend, the African-American dancer, choreographer, and teacher Arthur Hall, to create something in the abandoned lot next to his cultural center, the Ile-Ife Center for the Arts and Humanities. What began as a grouping of mosaic sculptures and a mural now includes more than 250 parcels of land.
A day after meeting with Lily, I took the bus to the Village in North Philadelphia. The bus is crowded: an old man drops a bag of medication; a young woman amputee sits in a wheelchair. Every seat is taken on this somber gray day. Outside, many houses are shuttered, abandoned, or in a state of disrepair. Then the heart of the Village comes into view: vibrant mosaic benches, mysterious statues, a giant mural, and a cultural center.
I’m greeted by Brenda, who shares her story. One day, her kids stumbled across Lily creating sculptures in the park. They returned day after day to help. Brenda came by to see what was going on and she too was hooked by the energy. Lily asked her if she wanted a job and Brenda, on welfare at the time, said yes. Decades later, she’s still there, having watched her children and grandchildren transform through the Village’s afterschool arts programs.
On the wall behind Brenda’s desk are framed photographs of beloved Village characters: local resident heroes like “Big Man,” who helped steward the development of the Village, serving as ambassador to the wider community. My tour guide today is El Sawyer, who has stepped into that role: a grounds and program manager who weaves connective tissue that allows the Village to function. El is a documentary filmmaker and a national consultant on programs to reduce recidivism. He is just as likely to be on a panel at the White House as on the phone with a neighborhood kid facing a family crisis or jail sentence. El met Lily through the arts program at the prison where he served an eight-year sentence. She helped introduce him to filmmaking, a career that’s now taking him across the country and—since parole is over—around the world.
The Village of Arts and Humanities defies easy categorization. It feels much more like an organism than an organization. There’s nothing overtly new or glamorous, but as we walk these city blocks passing crumbling roofs, extraordinary mosaic murals, and chicken coops, there’s a sense of beautiful, organized chaos, a constellation of initiatives and relationships in an organic state of change and symbiosis. El Sawyer calls it “invisible technology.”
In this Village, men recently out of prison can get a good job maintaining the grounds and be visible members of a community (with a potential job pipeline to the nearby university); vacant houses become afterschool video editing studios or homes for new tenants at highly reduced rates; neighbors experiment with gardens and greenhouses; one floor of a building might house silk-screening and fashion design, another a dance studio, and the next a library “hotspot” run by the city, where a woman who left New Orleans after Katrina tells us the Village was the one place she felt welcome and supported. Young folks are employed to paint the façade of an entire block of three-story buildings according to the color palette chosen by each small business owner. The Village can be as innovative and nimble in creating daycare centers and health services as in developing artists-in-residence programs, annual theater festivals, and parades.
El and I stop by the Village’s storefront space. Women are making paper and binding books, turning their old criminal records into new narratives as part of a reentry workshop facilitated by the People’s Paper Co-op in partnership with Philadelphia Lawyers for Social Equity. This is one of dozens of programs initiated over the last three decades at the Village. I think back to Lily’s statement—“I work the ground and fertilize and give people goodwill”—and marvel at how fertile this ground is. The more culture-shifting activity that happens here, the riper it becomes for more. The Village is in a state of constant becoming, offering a multiplicity of stories and “strategies for belonging,” to borrow a phrase from USDAC National Cabinet Minister of Belonging, Roberto Bedoya.
All of this is happening without significant city government support, El tells me, not thanks to it. Mostly funded by foundations, the Village—like the vast majority of cultural institutions under a certain size—is constantly in survival mode, looking for the next grant. What if that weren’t the case? What if the Village of Arts and Humanities was not an anomaly, but exactly the kind of “strategy for belonging” that every city invested in? What if this kind of “invisible technology” and “compassionate living social sculpture” were embraced as core elements of urban planning and pillars of public investment?
As our time together draws to an end, a taxi driver pulls up. He’s come here today to talk with El about how he can start a Village in his neighborhood.