In North Philadelphia, nestled into a long-struggling neighborhood, there is an oasis. Mysterious monuments, striking murals, creatures made of mosaics and an impossible collection of colors weave through once-decaying courtyards. This collective palace, the Village of Arts and Humanities, is a triumph of artistic ingenuity and community spirit that goes back almost three decades.
The artist’s name is Lily Yeh and the Village is only one of many beautification projects she has produced around the world. The Barefoot Artist is a documentary on both her work and her origins, two obviously interconnected but also quite remarkably distinct stories. One of the film’s co-directors, Daniel Traub, is her son. The other, Glenn Holsten, has been documenting her work since the early days of the Village. Sometimes a documentary made so close to its subject can be narrow or indulgent, but not this one. The Barefoot Artist is a remarkably restrained and intuitively beautiful portrait of the relationship between art, its audience and the sadness of both its inspiration and its creator.
The film’s structure is split between its two narratives. The depiction of Yeh’s art begins with her current activities in Gisenyi, Rwanda, where she is leading the efforts to turn a ramshackle memorial for the victims of the 1994 Genocide into a place of reverence and peace. Later, Holsten and Traub turn to her early work as a young artist in Philadelphia trying to find success in galleries. Her moment of revelation comes with the Village project in 1986, which inspired her to leave gallery space and transform public and sacred spaces around the world. Her stated philosophy, which opens the film, is about seeking to soothe pain with art, using color to release the sadness of humanity. She has taken this all over the world, to China and India, Kenya and Palestine, Haiti and Ecuador.
The other thread is more biographical, following Yeh’s search for understanding of the sadness in her own life. The weight on her heart comes from her family history. Her father was a general in the Kuomintang Army who fought against the Japanese during World War II and fled with Chaing Kai-Shek to Taiwan when the Communists won the Chinese Civil War. As it turns out, when her father left mainland China in the late 1940s, he left behind another family. Now, decades later, Yeh searches for them. Traub and Holsten avoid sensationalism, though they do withhold information to add a restrained elegance to the storytelling. They follow her back to China, spending a great deal of time with her relatives and placing her in the context of something as personally resonant as her more abstract art. The final climax on the island of Hainan is at once humble and majestic, shot with a light touch and a commitment to the most telling images: the smile of a half-sister, a tattered map on the floor, a batch of celebratory fireworks.
These emotionally charged sequences sit perfectly alongside the presentation of her work and the film flows quite easily between these two aspects of her life. It’s also helped along by a very effective minimalist score by composer Michael Aharon. The last section is particularly powerful, the narratives dovetailing in their pursuit of closure for both Yeh and for the people of Gesenyi, Rwanda, waiting to observe the 20th anniversary of the genocide. The completed memorial is stunning and tranquil, the perfect emotional conclusion to follow the dramatic scenes of personal reunion in China. The bifurcated structure leads to a deep, rewarding understanding of both how Yeh works and why, how her art can help heal both a community and an artist.
The Barefoot Artist is now in theaters.