Movie Review: ‘The Barefoot Artist’ Tells The Story Of A Fascinating Woman Lily Yeh

Greetings again from the darkness. Those who strive to make the world a better place deserve their moment in the spotlight. Lily Yeh is an artist with whom you may be familiar if you’ve ever stumbled upon the Village of Arts and Humanities in northern Philadelphia. Or possibly you have seen her beautification projects in other parts of the globe – Rwanda, Kenya, Taiwan, Mexico or numerous other areas that once desperately needed a face lift.

Ms. Yeh is a spry 70 year old who was born in China and educated in the United States. Her father was a general in the Chiang Kai-shek army, and was a natural leader and brilliant war strategist. Because of this, she was raised in prestige and with respect. Much of her early motivation came from her father’s inspiration and she clearly worshiped him. It wasn’t until Lily had her (beautifully detailed) landscape paintings ignored by the public in favor of the pop art of the 60’s did she come to realize that true art must come from within. And thus began her journey of self-discovery.

The film is co-directed by Glenn Holsten and Daniel Traub. Mr. Traub is Lily’s son from a failed marriage, and as with many documentaries, his closeness to the subject is both a blessing and a curse. The film is a bit awkwardly divided into two segments. By far the more interesting is the story of Lily’s global work in bringing “art to places lacking in beauty”. One of her projects is a memorial for a mass grave in a Rwandan Genocide Survivor’s Village. Her efforts turn a shabby lean-to into a beautiful place for reflection and peace.

The other story line plays as more of a home movie than a documentary. We follow Lily as she chases her father’s history through his journal entries. His writings take her back to her birth country of China as she uncovers a family secret that leads to more surprises. It’s understandable why co-director Traub sees the value in documenting this, but it doesn’t really play for the rest of us.

Lily Yeh is a fascinating woman who has made a real difference in many part of the world. She states “beauty is intimately engaged with darkness” and follows through on her vision. When the movie concentrates on Lily’s philosophy and wisdom, we get gems like “broken places are my canvas”. Her personal journey of self-discovery is where her value lies. She confesses that she “was the one who needed help” and “was missing something”. Bringing art and beauty to those places and people lacking, is what allowed Lily to find her own center. And that’s a beautiful thing.

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