Tuesday, October 11, 2016

SRPS Movie Night: The Barefoot Artist - the life and work of Lily Yeh

I was visiting my local library a couple of weeks ago to pick up a book I'd ordered through inter-library loan, when I just happened to see the DVD case for The Barefoot Artist on the shelf. I don't know what about it exactly caught my eye, but I knew I was going to be taking it home with me. And I'm so glad I did!

What a beautiful film! This documentary is a loving tribute to a truly remarkable artist, Lily Yeh. After watching this film, I am heartened to know such a woman exists, and also a bit sad that I hadn't heard of her before. I can't help but feel as though I've lost out on so many years of being inspired by her work.

Created by her cinematographer son, Danial Traub, and producer Glenn Holsten, The Barefoot Artist is a thoughtful and moving telling of her life's story and the inspiration behind her magnificent works of art in communities around the globe.

Lily Yeh was born in China to a socially prominent family, and was able to pursue her passion for drawing from a very early age. When she was a young woman, she came to the United States to attend the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. She fell in love with Philadelphia, and decided to stay and to pour her artistic heart out in an effort to heal the broken community she called home. She founded the Village of Arts & Humanities -- creating a vibrant community park in what had been an abandoned lot. She worked with the local community to create a lasting project that expanded the original park into a network of parks and gardens, each incorporating her artistic vision for the space and built with the love and labor of her neighbors.

In 2004 she met Jean Bosco Musana Rukirande, Regional Coordinator of Rwanda Red Cross in Gisenyi, while the two of them were attending a conference in Barcelona. After hearing him describe the suffering by his people during the Rwandan Genocide -- the "largest organized killing of human beings in the shortest period of time in modern history" -- she knew it was time to expand her work beyond the Village in North Philadelphia. She founded Barefoot Artists to bring her method of using art to heal what she calls the "broken areas" around the world. In this capacity she has shown herself to be a truly amazing woman filled with compassion and strength.
"There are so many places in need in the world. I could find a way to create a system and go to many, many places, but my way of working is like an artist. I need to be with people to feel and work with people and be very, very personal."
The documentary travels with her as she visits communities that have been absolutely devastated by war. In particular, it focuses on her first major project for Barefoot Artists -- the Rwanda Healing Project -- where she and her impressive group of volunteers helped the community come to terms with the lingering emotional scars from the Rwandan Genocide. Through art, storytelling, and community activities, and with help from her immense international network, she was able to help them address past wounds as well as find solutions for present problems.
For healing to occur, we needed to address both the past — the dark, evil, and destructive force manifested in the 1994 genocide, and the present -– the survivors and their upcoming families. The building of the Rugerero Genocide Memorial helped the survivors to honor their dead and to heal. The transformation of the Survivors’ Village, which unfolded through a ten-year period of infrastructure building and skill training, empowered the villagers to create self- sustaining work and to prosper.
This comprehensive transformation project included: installing rain harvesting devices for the villagers, building vented sanitation facilities for all families, creating a basic health system, launching a micro-lending program, setting up goat and chicken rearing, and sponsoring multi-year, multi-faceted skill training activities in sewing, basket weaving, sunflower seed oil production, charcoal production from leaves, solar energy panel assembly, and art and sculpture making.
(source: Barefoot Artists)
The Barefoot Artist combines direct interview, historic photos, clips from decades past, and video from her more recent art projects. It also tells a more personal story, delving into a deeply buried family secret that she accidentally uncovered, and her work to help her extended family overcome the lasting shame and pain. Weaving together these two worlds -- private and public -- we get a rare glimpse into her personal motivations, and the source of her overflowing compassion.
"It's possible to transform the violent energy of our time into a culture of kindness.
 All things are possible through the openness of our mind, the gentleness of our spirit, and the act of understanding and embracing."
I checked the DVD out from my library, but the film is also currently available for streaming on Netflix and Amazon. You can also read the book based on Lily Yeh's work to transforms a derelict Beijing factory into a vibrant beautiful school for migrant workers' children, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms.

According to the Barefoot Artists website, she's currently busy at work in Gorlitz, Germany, helping to bring her special method of healing through art to the people there who carry the invisible wounds of countless generations of oppression and occupation. I cannot wait to see what they create.

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