“The project has to take root in people’s minds, emotions, and hearts. How do you do that? By working with them, by listening to them, by opening my heart. And when I have the space to listen, they usually open their hearts and share something and then we have the deep bonding and we can do something meaningful together.”
The Barefoot Artist, a documentary about Yeh that will be released next year, showcases these projects. The film reveals how Yeh’s journey led from the search for healing from her own brokenness to the healing of brokenness in others. And the result of that journey, says Tom Kaiden, president of the Greater Philadelphia Cultural Alliance, has shown the world “how art can help tackle really difficult social and economic issues.”
Yeh is 70, yet she seems at least 20 years younger. She is a petite woman, about five feet tall, but she has a larger presence, seeming to fill a room with her positive energy. When talking about her work, she jokes that “This old girl did something good.”
But it’s hard to think of her as old. She still scurries up precarious ladders to paint, still enthuses about her projects, her hands waving in the air as she speaks. Recently, on a trip to Rwanda, villagers gave her a chief’s staff, a sign of respect. They said she could use it when she gets old and needs help walking.
Born in China but raised in Taiwan, Yeh credits her parents with encouraging her creative side. “I owe everything to them,” she says.
Her childhood also set the stage for her later drive. Her father had three children from another marriage as well as the five children he had with Yeh’s mother. For years, the two families existed in totally separate worlds. Yeh talked about an unspoken pain she felt when she was growing up but could not quite name.