“The Barefoot Artist” is an engaging portrait of Lily Yeh, a Chinese emigre to the U.S. who has made her major imprint creating collaborative art with residents in areas torn by war, poverty and other hardships. Maintaining an intimate focus while leapfrogging from the States to Africa, China and India, this feature by vet documentarian Glenn Holsten and photographer/d.p. Daniel Traub (who is Yeh’s son) is nicely crafted if a bit haphazardly structured, and should make a particularly viable pickup item for artscasters. It opens theatrically at New York’s IFC Center on Dec. 5 and Dec. 18 at Los Angeles’ Laemmle NoHo 7.
We first meet the energetic septuagenarian in a Rwandan village that’s home to genocide survivors, whom she asks to dredge up painful related memories and draw them. (Much later, we see she’s a key participant when the entire populace commemorates the anniversary of the 1994 mass slaughter.) For Yeh, it’s one more means of using art not to escape but to embrace “the darkness of life.” Her work in that direction began in earnest in 1986, when late choreographer Arthur Hall, of the Afro-American Dance Ensemble, commissioned her to transform an abandoned lot adjacent to his North Philadelphia studio into an art park.
That project eventually grew into the Village of Arts and Humanities, a large-scale renovation of empty Philly structures and disused lots via community-built gardens, murals, sculptures, et al. Finding herself drawn to this more immersive work after years in the rarefied worlds of art galleries and academia, she stayed for nearly two decades. Meanwhile she developed nearly as long-lasting a collaborative relationship (if necessarily a more sporadic in-person one) with a Kenyan village whose inhabitants survive by scavenging a vast garbage dump. She recalls her first visit there feeling “like a descent into hell.”
About 35 minutes in, the pic shifts gears from these major projects (and a rather cursory recap of her adult life) to her family past. Her father had been a general in Chiang Kai-shek’s army, but with the arrival of communism, he fled to Shanghai. His status in the former regime still prestigious in exile, he prospered, his children becoming high achievers in various fields after moving to the U.S. to complete their educations.
But this beloved parent, whose eventual care fell to Yeh and her young son when he developed Alzheimer’s, had also left behind a “first family” whose abandonment and unknown fate haunted him: Before falling in love with Yeh’s sophisticated, well-born mother, he’d sired three kids from a youthful arranged marriage. While the “second family” flourished abroad, his ex-wife and brood suffered, their association with him resulting in punitive relocation to “the most remote place in China” and a life of great privation. It’s only in a somewhat relaxed recent political atmosphere, after her father’s death, that Yeh is able to track down her long-lost half-siblings. These variably bitter and warm reunions dominate the pic’s later progress.
In choosing a dramatic but slightly awkward throughline that roots Yeh’s art of commemoration and reparation in family history, the co-directors tend to shortchange aspects that might normally foreground a portrait of an artist. We get very little sense of her personal life: A brief mention that excessive focus on work strained relations with her son for a time is striking for being the only such disclosure, though it’s explored no further. Nor do we get much insight into the evolution of her art, which looks fascinating in the glimpses afforded, but is viewed primarily in terms of community art therapy, rather than appreciated as an aesthetic end value in itself. Though these omissions frustrate a bit in retrospect, “The Barefoot Artist” is nonetheless an engrossing watch.
Traub’s background as a still photographer (as well as cinematographer on prior docus) is evident in the film’s notably handsome lensing, while other assembly contributions are likewise gracefully turned.