Going Toward the Light: Philadelphia's Village of Arts and Humanities

Published :
March 2003
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The Village of Arts and Humanities offers a blend of neighborhood development, creative arts, festivals and more to help rebuild a North Philadelphia community. This feature article was commissioned by The Wallace Foundation.

On the rough palette of North Philadelphia, the once vacant lots touched by the magic of the Village of Arts and Humanities sparkle like stars on a crisp winter night. With a phantasmagoria of mosaic sculptures, murals and gardens glimmering with giant angels and creatures no zoo has ever seen, the Village offers vibrant testimony to the role that art can play in bringing a desolate urban landscape back to life and engaging youth and families in the arts.

 

  
Village youth creating a mural.


The Village is more than the striking mosaics and glittering sculptures that commuters can glimpse as they ride the SEPTA train back to the suburbs, or that city-dwellers espy from the buses that run up Eleventh Street. What began in the late 1980s as a simple effort to paint a mural and clean up a trash-strewn lot has evolved into a program that teaches art, music and dance to young and old; converts eyesores and claptraps into new homes; grows seedlings by the thousands to help reforest Philadelphia's parks; and brings in neighborhood men and women struggling to kick their dependency on drugs.

Lily Yeh, a Chinese-born artist and art professor, came to the neighborhood in 1986 to paint a mural of creation on the barren outside wall of a dance studio run by Arthur Hall, a choreographer and impresario who earned fame bringing African dance to American stages.

 

  
Executive Director Lily Yeh
Photograph by Christopher Connell


With a modest grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, Yeh enlisted neighborhood children and adults to turn an adjacent, abandoned lot into a vest-pocket park with signature touches: a grove of mosaic trees; a low, scalloped brown adobe wall; and love seats that glimmer like the mirrored, sequined seats on a carousel. Her style is bright, bold and elemental, with figures that spring from Yeh's imagination and folk art from the four corners of the globe.

Eventually, she gave up her professorship at Philadelphia's University of the Arts to tend this cultural garden that kept growing in North Philadelphia. The neighborhood has accepted her as one of their own, and powerful allies including the mayor turn out for the Village's colorful festivals and parades.

Word of the Village and its works has spread far beyond Germantown Avenue. The Public Broadcasting Service did an arresting hour-long documentary, "An Angel in the Village." The Reader's Digest and a hundred other newspapers and magazines have profiled the Village, which is growing with a staff of 16, a dozen part-timers, hundreds of volunteers and an annual budget that tops $1.3 million.

 

  
Urban Gardening at the Village.


The Village concentrates its work in a 260-square block stretch of Philadelphia, where it has transformed more than 150 lots into gardens, green spaces and a 2-acre tree farm on a site that once housed a factory. It has forged partnerships with schools, hospitals, businesses and even the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles, who built a playground for the neighborhood. Its festivals and celebrations - for Earth Day, for teenagers' coming of age, for the annual mid-August harvest festival called Kujenga Pamoja (The Village motto, taken from the Swahili for Together We Build) - spill over into the surrounding streets and shops along Germantown Avenue.

From the beginning, the Village has crafted an artistic vision that reflects the needs of the people and their spaces in North Philadelphia. Under the guiding hand of Lily Yeh, the Village attracts both amateur and professional artists with the talent and sensitivity to create beauty in these urban precincts, nurturing what they find there and inspiring neighborhood children, parents and seniors to tap into their own creativity. In its mission statement, the Village sketched its successful formula for combining broad community involvement with consummate professional delivery: "The Village transforms the experiences of the community into works of high artistic quality. Each project begins with a base of community involvement, which is explored and elicited as widely as possible. The progression from raw materials (interviews, children's drawings, abandoned properties) to the finished work of art is then nurtured and guided by professional artists, educators and craftspeople, with the involvement of community residents." This philosophy lends the Village's special touch to a host of artistic enterprises, from sculptures and pottery to community theater and dance. It works in the neighborhood's public schools and its housing projects, providing opportunities for youth to learn art techniques and business skills, and to develop a green thumb growing flowers and vegetables in lots that had been little more than refuse heaps.

James "Big Man" Maxton, a onetime drug peddler, was himself transformed by the Village, and is now its principal mosaic artist and operations director. Yeh's first ally from the neighborhood was a charismatic jack-of-all-trades named Joseph "Jo Jo" Williams. Jo Jo recruited Maxton as his disciple. Maxton was coaxed into the work over trashcan fires on summer nights when Williams spun out tales about how this little Chinese lady was going to transform eyesores into showcases and provide a decent living for everyone who pitched in.

 

  
Angel Alley
Photograph by Christopher Connell


Maxton's schoolboy dreams of becoming a football star were cut short by a knee injury in high school in North Carolina. He came north looking for opportunity and discovered the streets instead. A gentle giant, he sold drugs to support his own habit. But he also liked to draw, and when he watched Jo Jo create the first mosaics in Ile Ife Park (named after the place in Nigeria where the Yoruba people believe the world began), the determined Maxton told Williams and Yeh that he could do the same, and even better.

He could - and did. Maxton over the years has crafted much of the Village's art, including Yeh's signature Angel Alley, the mosaics that stand watch over the Village. These are no Raphaelite cherubs, but armed, warrior angels with black and reddish-brown faces modeled after fierce Ethiopian icons.

Heidi Warren first encountered the Village in 1991 as a Haverford College student preparing a senior paper on the role of art in addressing social problems. She returned after graduation and spent the next decade helping run the Village and organizing its rapid growth.

"The Village's strength is that it's carrying out such a wide range of programs, which sets it apart from a lot of community-based organizations -- especially arts organizations," said Warren, the former managing director. "It enables us to go for funding for everything from greening and environmental programs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to juvenile justice, delinquency-prevention stuff, and straightforward arts and education."

Yeh still professes astonishment that anyone pays attention to her work. "What I do is so modest, so humble. But there is something there," said Yeh. "The only reason the Village is stepping forward . . .is because consistently we delivered something that is not delivered in other places. The Village is about real connection - not frivolous, but the real connection," said Yeh.

"That's the secret of the Village's stability. It does not matter which wind goes which way," she added. "We're going towards the light. That's what the Village is about."

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