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Lily Yeh finds beauty in broken places

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“My work is about finding what is broken and turning it into whole. This endeavor to make things whole may have derived from my life’s desire to bring the two families together into one,” she says.

When Yeh was 15, she began studying traditional Chinese landscape painting. She loved it, but she recognized its main drawback: She was copying the works of her teachers and other masters, not creating her own. In her book Awakening Creativity, she compared it to having her feet bound.

Her creative awakening came after she moved to the United States in 1963 to study painting at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. She found the art scene there to be wild and experimental.

“I felt transported from the wispy and idyllic art world of the past into the volatile and powerful new reality of the twentieth century,” she writes in Awakening Creativity

“Coming in contact with modern art in America shook to the core my understanding of art, its purpose, value, and relationship to society.”

So even though her teachers in Taiwan lamented her creative transformation, Yeh blossomed. She began teaching at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, eventually becoming a tenured professor.

Still, she says, her work didn’t finally mature, didn’t find its center, until 1986, when she began working on what would eventually become the Village of Arts and Humanities in a tough pocket of North Philadelphia.

Years later, people would tell her she saved the neighborhood. Yeh sees it differently: “I was the one being helped in the most profound way,” she says.

Vision Amid the Desolation

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