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Raising a village

Lily Yeh knows it will take a childlike faith in the power of art to keep North Philly's Village of Arts and Humanities from slipping back into decay.

Lily Yeh in Beijing at the Dandelion School. (Duan Xiao)
Lily Yeh in Beijing at the Dandelion School. (Duan Xiao)Read more

Lily Yeh gets out of her ancient turquoise sedan - crank windows! - and looks around at North Alder Street.

On one side is Ile Ife Park, full of undulating mosaicked benches, upthrusting mosaic sculptures, lush grass and arching trees - a green and sparkly oasis off fumy Germantown Avenue.

On the other side of tiny Alder Street, a wall of mosaicked Ethiopian angels peers over grassy open space. There once was another wall with another row of six-foot angels facing it. That's gone now, a victim of collapse.

It's been six years since Lily Yeh, 69, left the one-of-a-kind Village of Arts and Humanities, an art-infused archipelago in a dilapidated and ignored section of North Philadelphia. Parks, gardens, sculpture, theater - even a tree farm - gave this neighborhood a sense of the possible, thanks to the village and her ability to inspire.

Yeh started it and nurtured it for 20 years, then moved on to start Barefoot Artists, a vehicle to work her artistic magic in other, more broken parts of the world - Rwanda, ravaged by genocide; a town built on refuse in Nairobi; a small school for migrants outside Beijing.

She has just published a book about the Beijing project, Awakening Creativity: Dandelion School Blossoms, and she is returning to her first place, a village built literally from nothing where dear friends, transformed by the experience, still live.

It is the 25th anniversary of the Village of Arts and Humanities, and Yeh is returning to help revive an old ritual there - the Rites of Passage, the culminating event of the Kujenga Pamoja festival, which will take place all day Saturday  in and around Ile Ife Park in the 2500 block of Germantown Avenue.

After leaving her car, she walks through the park - formerly the site of half a dozen collapsed buildings until she and the neighborhood transformed it - and runs into Nazeem, a veteran of the village programs for young people.

"Miss Lily!" he enthuses, all smiles.

"So good to see you!" she responds, with a big hug.

They talk about changes in the village since her departure - the loss of houses and parks and murals, all victims of decay.

"The angel wall, remember the angel wall?" Nazeem says.

"Now it is Angel Park," Yeh replies, laughing.

"Yeah," he replies. "I miss the other side, you could just walk through it and there would be angels on both sides. The building was like an abandoned building and eventually it fell down, it was knocked down. And the stuff that was on the side of it, they couldn't save it."

"Quite a few murals were lost," Yeh says.

"Yeah, a lot of them. About eight big murals on there probably. Like that angel in the back. There was another one, yeah."

"We lost another very big one - three-story-high mural we lost."

"Yeah," says Nazeem, lapsing into silence.

"It's OK," Yeh tells him, laughing. "It is a sandpainting here."

Like a sandpainting, the art of the village, seen in the ever-shifting community and streetscape, is transitory in form, enduring in spirit.

On this recent afternoon, Yeh is meeting with the relatively new leadership at the village: Elizabeth Grimaldi, 30, executive director for about two years; Aviva Kapost, 32, director of projects for one.

Since Yeh's departure, the village has gone through difficult times. James "Big Man" Maxton, a former drug addict who found his life's work in creating murals and mosaic sculptures with her, died in 2005. German Wilson, director of the theater program and a tireless supporter of the neighborhood's young people, was compelled to retire by illness.

Fire and collapse began taking a toll on the neighborhood and its parks and murals; funding began to dry up. The staff is now a third what it was, and the $500,000 annual budget is down more than 50 percent.

Grimaldi and Kapost are seeking a way to resuscitate the village's visual arts activities and to re-involve the community in as many ways as possible. They have begun work on a preservation and restoration plan, even as decay advances block by block all around.

"The focus," said Grimaldi, "is on supporting the voices and aspirations of the community by providing opportunities for expression through arts and culture."

Yeh has agreed to come back at some point in a year or two to lead workshops on how art can transform community. Her book describes how she worked with Chinese students, parents, teachers, and administrators to transfigure the grim and gray Dandelion School, a parable of metamorphosis. She learned it all in North Philadelphia.

But returning to the village is difficult. For one thing, the needs of the community are at least as great as they were 25 years ago when she collected children and a few curious adults and filled them with the idea of creating a beautiful place.

"Everything is changing except this neighborhood," she says. "I wonder why, with us busting our guts for 20 years, but it didn't move the city to invest."

What next for the village?

"I would love to see just in a small place, looking at passageways, the teens mapping their space, mapping where they travel, the places they use, the bus stops they get off at," Kapost tells Yeh. "Involving them in defining those spaces, installing some kind of artwork that marks - I don't want to say sacred spaces, but beautiful, safe spaces."

"How do we attach that to the methodology that you bring in your book," Grimaldi wonders. "How can we make it happen? How do we go from an idea to action in making it happen?"

Grimaldi and Kapost want to bring back the energy of working on visual art projects outdoors. And they want Yeh to help with the Rites of Passage festival Saturday.

Young people in village programs now are unacquainted with mosaic work, let alone the Rites of Passage ritual. A few gather to listen to Yeh talk about it.

She tells them about the drums and the children going from house to house with gifts. She describes the making of costumes and the carrying of torchlike candles at dusk. She describes the reading of pledges and the making of shared commitments.

"It is a ritual," she tells them. "Our intention is for community, parents, friends to come out and celebrate our teens, to really let our young people know that we're here to support you. And it is to let the community know that you are here."

"You are the future," she says, as a dozen young people listened intently. "How do you tell the community that you will take that role?"

It is a simple message and a difficult task.

"How does it feel to you to be a part of it?" Kapost asks them.

"Butterflies in my stomach," says one boy.

Yeh tells him not to worry.

"It's totally transforming when you do it with deep sincerity," she says. "It transforms the group. It transforms the individual."

Funds for the Village

Lily Yeh's Village of Arts and Humanities and Barefoot Artists project, and the Restoration and Preservation Fund of the Cosmopolitan Club, are beneficiaries of "From Souk to Salon," a weekend-long exhibition and sale of antique and tribal textiles, kilims, pillows, jewelry, and crafts from the collection of Maryanne Conheim.

At the Cosmopolitan Club, 1616 Latimer St.

Opening reception with Lily Yeh, 5-8 p.m. Friday, $25 (4 p.m. $50). 215-735-1057, Ext. 10, or

Exhibition and sale, 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. $10. EndText