[APPLAUSE] LILY YEH: My work is about community building through the arts. The funny thing is that it is not so much the building of the community that interests me. It is the organic process that naturally happens when creativity occurs in broken places. I'm interested in what creativity ignites and brings forward.
When the process is open and inclusive, and when the goal is for the common good, and when arts reflect people's dreams and hopes, transformation happens and community becomes. And more importantly, it needs to fulfill my deepest yearning to become whole. Life breaks all of us. Maybe the purpose of living is to find our personal paths through which broken can become whole.
I was born into a family with devoted parents. I was lucky to have four caring siblings and a loving grandmother. But Father had a family earlier-- rarely spoken of, phantom-like, but ever-present. It cast a long shadow in our family life.
My parents nurtured us and encouraged learning. My father loved Chinese landscape painting. He found me a teacher when I was 15. I fell in love with this great tradition. For seven years, painting landscapes became the focus of my life.
The way I learned painting was by copying Master's work. While the method was damaging to the development of my own creativity, but it helped me to come in contact with a special place which the Chinese call the dustless world. "Dust" here refers to mental pollution, such as self-centeredness, ignorance, attachment, and greed.
The dustless world is a place of pristine beauty and poignant serenity. It is a place of this world, and yet it reveals the world of the other. Through these paintings, I was able to travel from the mundane world to that of the sacred. It is a place I found solace. And it is a place I call home.
When I came to the States to study arts in the '60s, it was total confusion for me. I did my best to fit in. My former teachers in Taiwan lamented. "She used to paint so well. Now she paints bathroom tiles."
I tried to fathom the depth of things. The ocean, in its vastness, became my subject. I tried to understand death and rebirth. Searching for the sacred, I created special environments. Here was The Garden of Easter. I placed colorful paintings and patterns on the wall, and I made an altar in honor of Mary Magdalene.
Then, I hit a wall. My life was going well-- raising my son, teaching at the University of the Arts, and showing at nice galleries, but something was amiss. I felt an emptiness inside. That set me off searching for meaning and authenticity. And life responded.
In 1986, I was invited by Arthur Hall, the distinguished late dancer and choreographer, to create an art park on an abandoned lot next to his headquarters in inner city North Philadelphia. I was interested, but totally scared. I had little resources-- no experience in working outdoors or in a community setting. I wanted to run away.
But the little voice in me said, if you do not rise to the occasion, the best of you will die. And the rest will not amount to anything. I did not want to see a coward in the mirror, so I stepped into the project.
What unfolded in the following summers, working with children and adults in the neighborhood, was so powerful that it changed the course of my life. Through working with the children, we gained the trust of the adults. Their participation rooted the project firmly in the community.
We made many mistakes along the way. But when we got it right, we found our voice. It was authentic and fresh. It is so full of life that it turned cement columns into colorful art trees.
In 2000, we turned an abandoned industrial land into a tree park. We populated it with unique structures. One time, I even saw a bus bringing tourists on safari in our neighborhood. Sometimes, nature turns the bad land into the land of enchantment. How interesting it is that in this broken place in inner city North Philadelphia, and through the thickness of life, that I found my way back to that pristine dustless world.
I had the privilege to witness the student-led democracy movement unfolding at Tiananmen Square in 1989. The heart of the momentous event was the hunger strikers. There were university students who decided to put their lives on the line to get their voices heard. They wanted democracy for China, and many of them had written their last wills.
It was heartbreaking to read some of the messages. "Oh Party, oh Mother, where are thou?" "Mother, I'm leaving." "Little sister, don't cry." I was struck by the power of the hunger strikers. Their simple action of sitting and refusing food set the whole nation on fire.
It dawned on me then that if I want my life count, being an artist is a way of life. It is about delivering the vision one is given, and it is about doing the right thing without sparing oneself. This prepared me for an extraordinary place, Korogocho.
It is a huge garbage dump situated on the outskirts of Nairobi. 100,000 people live here. Thousands try to eke out a living from the dump site. People experience violence on so many levels-- filth, the lack of water, clean water, air, opportunities, and the raging hunger. It is the violence of poverty and deprivation.
What was one to do in face of such devastation? For an artist, bring colors. Following the footsteps of Christ, Father Alex Zanotelli not only helps the poor-- he lives with the poor. His church, St. John's Catholic Church, is located on the edge of the huge garbage dump. It is the place where hundreds of children and adults find comfort and refuge.
This became our project site. No one could have imagined that beauty could exist in such a place, including me. But as our brightly-colored images emerged, the mood of the community began to change.
When we dared to place the freshly-carved angels on top of an abandoned quarry structure to guard and bless this indentured community, the spirited people soared. Creating art in forlorn and forsaken places is like making fire in the frozen darkness of the winter's night. It brings light, warmth, hope, and it beckons people to join in.
Word spread. People heard that an artist from America was working with residents in the dumpsite community in Korogocho. At the dedication, over 1,000 people attended. Our honored guests included members from embassies, Kenyan government, universities, private foundations. Most of them had never set foot in this pain-inflicted community. To our surprise, American ambassador Aurelia Brazeal appeared in person to honor the occasion.
On that day, I felt the immense power of art. Through our collaborative action in creating beauty, we empowered ourselves to push open the weighty hell gate of this vast slum so that fresh air and sunlight poured in. Father Alex commented, "It is important that we bear witness in places like Korogocho. It helps people to remember that they are not forgotten, and they do not suffer in vain."
In 2004, I'd left my project in inner city North Philadelphia after an 18-year sojourn. Finally, it was time to mend the brokenness in my own life and face the dark shadows that have haunted me for so long. Father was a great war hero and a general in Chiang Kai-Shek's army. He knew the pain of humiliation and deprivation of being an orphan.
During his military years, he established three schools for poor children. His prominence provided shelter and prestige for my family in Taiwan, but it exposed his first family in mainland China to danger, persecution, anguish, and poverty. For various reasons, he more or less abandoned them. He suffered deep guilt, depression, and grief the rest of his life.
Though flawed, he was the most loving father to me. To repay his love, I felt the urgency to reconnect with the first family-- to turn Father's guilt into fulfillment. After a great deal of efforts from both families, we realized our dream.
In 2012, the officials of the [INAUDIBLE] Vocational School in Rinan Province installed a statue of my father on the campus to commemorate his contribution as the founder of the school 60-some years ago. At the dedication, under his statue, the two families became one. Look at the happiness of our next generation. Here, the long shadows of sorrow and regrets were transformed into jubilance and joy.
This prepared me for the most challenging project I have ever done-- the building of the Rugerero Genocide Memorial. Looking back, I'm still surprised that this project has ever happened. How could I, an artist who received no invitation, had little resources or expertise, who did not even have Rwanda on her agenda, and go there, and managed to build a Genocide Memorial?
My answer, in short, is that life beckoned and I responded. In 2004, while attending an international conference, I heard the story told by Jean Bosco Musana Rukirande, a Red Cross representative, about the suffering of his people. I was deeply moved, and decided to pay him a visit.
None of us could have imagined that our working together with the survivors over a 10-year period did build communities and changed lives. I saw the mass grave in 2004. I asked myself, how could people heal when their loved ones were buried in such a place? A survivor told me, "Every time I pass there, my heart broke. It was like killing us twice."
I wanted to bring the concept of beauty into the design of the memorial. A survivor asked me to construct a bone chamber so that their loved ones can be buried properly. The idea frightened me. The bones are intimately connected to the national psyche of terror and profound sorrow.
But together, we managed. When the chamber became too moist for the bones, we tiled the whole surface of the monument to keep it dry. Low tech, But highly effective. How appropriate that it was the making of the mosaics that helped us just solve the problems in this grief-stricken community? And through working together with the broken piles, piece by piece, people began to transform their suffering and despair into hope and joy.
On April 7, 2009, the day of the national mourning, thousands of people walked for miles in a somber processional to the Genocide Memorial. Folks lined up to enter the bone chamber. I was startled to see that they not only paid tribute to the victims-- some had to open the caskets to look at the parched bones.
15 years later, it was still too much to bear. But somehow, through the piercing pains and howls, healing began. Survivors said to us, when we see beauty, we see hope. Now our loved ones can come home in honor and dignity.
Art and beauty heal. So what is the idea we're spreading? Listen to the voice in your heart. Be courageous to respond to life's calling. Take action. Creative action, guided by compassion, leads to transformation. Thank you.
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Lily Yeh, an internationally celebrated artist, makes the case that each of us has the power to change the world for better if we are able to listen to the voice from our heart, and have the courage to respond to life's calling. When we let compassion guide our actions, transformation happens.
At TEDxCornellU, November 17, 2013, Yeh discusses her development of a unique methodology for using the arts as a medium for personal and social transformation.
The Center for Transformative Action is proud to have organized this TEDx event, which celebrated the many ways in which knowledge is put to work in pursuit of economic vitality, ecological sustainability, and social well-being. Co-sponsored by Entrepreneurship@Cornell; Cornell's Engaged Learning + Research; Cornell's College of Architecture, Art and Planning; the Johnson School of Management's Entrepreneurship and Innovation Institute; the Iscol Family Program for Leadership in Public Service; Cornell's Global Health Program and departments of Government, Development Sociology, and Art; the Alternatives Federal Credit Union; and GreenStar Cooperative Market.