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Why 'Barefoot Artist' Lily Yeh does what she does

Lily Yeh folds her hands on the small dining table in her tiny Philadelphia townhouse, drops her forehead to her ropy knuckles, and weeps.

Lily Yeh, co-founder of the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, with Philadelphia filmmaker and longtime friend Glenn Holsten.
Lily Yeh, co-founder of the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia, with Philadelphia filmmaker and longtime friend Glenn Holsten.Read more

Lily Yeh folds her hands on the small dining table in her tiny Philadelphia townhouse, drops her forehead to her ropy knuckles, and weeps.

It is not unusual to see Yeh, 73, overcome with feeling. Since cofounding the Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia in 1989, she has made it her mission to bring creativity and art to broken communities. More often than not, she grieves for others' pain and finds joy in their successes.

Her tears this time, however, are not for the neglected children of drug addicts in the city, or victims of genocide in Rwanda, or orphans in China, or the poor in Kenya, Palestinian areas, Ecuador, and India - all of whom have moved and inspired her.

No, this time, the pain is personal.

Her regret, she says, is that she did not give her son, Daniel Traub, the attention he deserved when he was young.

"I don't think I have an excuse," she says. "Except wanting success. Wanting to make a career. I strayed. But life offers a second chance."

Thursday evening, The Barefoot Artist, a loving, and at times unflinching, documentary about Yeh's life and work, will be shown in the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater. It is not the first film about her public art projects, which have been widely recognized for years. But it is the first to delve into her complicated family history and offer insight into the personal suffering that compelled her to make her mark in some of the bleakest places on Earth.

Shot and directed by Traub, a fine-arts photographer, and Yeh's longtime friend Glenn Holsten, a Philadelphia filmmaker, the newly revised, 83-minute biography follows her journey from childhood in Taiwan to her tenure as an artist and professor in Philadelphia, and ultimately to her attempts to heal the wounds of strangers around the world.

Woven into the narrative with snippets of historical footage, family photographs, and first-person interviews is the story of Yeh's father. Orphaned at age 6 in China, he grew up to become a general in Chiang Kai-shek's army. In 1934, he left his first wife and their three children to marry Yeh's mother, an educated and aristocratic young woman.

After the communist takeover, Yeh and his family fled to Taiwan. Left behind in the People's Republic, members of her father's first family were punished for their relationship to a Nationalist Party general. Although Yeh's father tried, he was never able to do much for them, and lived with tremendous guilt for the rest of his life.

In 1963, Lily Yeh immigrated to Philadelphia to study art at the University of Pennsylvania. She later taught at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and showed her work in high-end New York galleries. But her ambition shifted when she worked on the initial North Philadelphia project. In her search for "authenticity," she became immersed in working in troubled communities.

Halfway through the film, Yeh ascribes some of this to her father, whom she describes as a "meteorite" who fell from glory after the war.

"If you are Chinese, you have the weight of filial piety," she says. She and her son, product of a failed early marriage and only 9 at the time, took care of her father when he developed Alzheimer's disease. "I often felt I had to live two people's lives. One thing I feared was not to fulfill my potential."

Caring for her father while growing the Village of Arts and Humanities came at a cost: "I became so focused on my work that the relationship between Daniel and I became wounded."

The film treads lightly on that tension, in part, Holsten says, out of respect for Traub's privacy.

Holsten has been documenting Yeh's work since they met in the 1990s. Then a producer at WHYY TV12, he made several short films about the village.

"It's hard not to be inspired by Lily," he says. "She goes headfirst into all these places. I want to share that braveness with other people, and maybe give them motivation that if you have an idea, just start it."

In 2005, Yeh asked him to chronicle her attempts to contact her father's first family and make amends.

"I have this deep longing of fulfilling my father's dream," she explains in the film, "of telling his first family how much he longed for them and how much he regretted."

At the same time, Traub was working on a film about his mother's project in Rwanda, where she worked with survivors of the 1994 genocide, using art to help them deal with their trauma and building a proper memorial for the victims' bones.

"We realized," Holsten says, "that it made sense for us to combine the two films and work together."

Throughout The Barefoot Artist, it is clear that Yeh's strong will and unbridled passion can be both charismatic and overwhelming. One scene in particular illustrates the effect she can have on those she embraces, both figuratively and literally.

She is in her father's ancestral home in southern China with his first daughter, Yan Zhu, her half-sister. During a ceremony of fireworks, Yeh hugs the frail, elderly woman and buries her face in her shoulder.

Holsten trained the camera on Yan's face for more than 30 seconds.

"It captures Lily's need to connect," he says. At one point, Yan tries delicately to pull away. "She looks a little uncomfortable," he says. But she politely waits until Yeh is ready to let her go.

During an interview this week, Yeh said that when she first saw the film in June, she drew back watching that scene and several others that were deeply personal.

"I felt exposed," she says. "There are moments when I want to hide."

Her decision not to ask Holsten to edit them out was based both on her respect for his artistic freedom and her belief that there are no true boundaries between her private and professional life.

"What I do," she said, "is a personal journey made public."

Yeh takes pride in helping people who have suffered to find beauty and joy in art. And the communities she has taken under her wing have benefited in other ways - micro-financing, job training, educational support.

Unlike many lauded for their selflessness, having dedicated their lives to doing good, Yeh is unusually honest about her motivations.

"I am an ordinary person. I am not out to save the world. I do this to make my life count. I do this because of my own deficiency." Her wish to have her work documented in a film, she said, was an extension of that need to make a mark and be remembered. "Walls crumble," she said. "When everything evaporates, something stays."

In the process of making the film, however, she got more than she hoped for, she says: During their collaboration, she and her son grew close again.

While they were shooting the final scene, in which she watches a burntorange sun set over a majestic mountain range, she felt a gentle tap on her shoulder.

"It was Daniel," she said. "That was the moment of atonement."

"The Barefoot Artist"

7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater, Broad and Spruce Streets.

Admission:  Free; reservations required.  Information: