Ile Ife Park (1986)

by Lily Yeh (1941 - )

Photo Caption: Photo by Steve Weinik © 2015, courtesy Mural Arts Philadelphia

Initiated by artist Lily Yeh and choreographer Arthur Hall

Owned by The Village of Arts and Humanities

At A Glance

  • Ile Ife Park is the founding project of The Village of Arts and Humanities in North Philadelphia

  • Choreographer Arthur Hall offered artist Lily Yeh a vacant lot – which became this “art park” – adjoining the Ile Ife Black Humanitarian Center

  • Yeh turned the lot into a garden and community center with art, including the iconic Ile Ife Guardian mural

  • The mural underwent major conservation in 2015 with the help of Mural Arts and artist Felix St. Fort

  • The Village has expanded to include numerous buildings, parks, gardens, murals, mosaics, and sculptures

Ile Ife Park is the founding project of The Village of Arts and Humanities nonprofit in North Philadelphia. This “art park” was initiated in 1986 by artist Lily Yeh, The Village’s founder and former executive director, who came from to Philadelphia from Taiwan in 1963 and taught at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts).

Yeh was able to make the park a reality through a collaboration with choreographer Arthur Hall – founder of the Afro-American Dance Ensemble and Director of the Ile Ife (Yoruba for “House of Love” and the park’s namesake) Black Humanitarian Center – who offered Yeh a vacant lot adjoining his Center as a site for a community sculpture garden. Yeh applied for and received a grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and was able to transform this vacant lot into a thriving garden and community center filled with art, including Yeh’s iconic Ile Ife Guardian mural.

According to Yeh, the park involved community residents in every phase of development – conception, design, and construction. Before work on the park began, five houses next to the lot burned down, giving her a much larger area for the project. Yeh worked with long-time neighborhood resident Joseph Williams, who encouraged and supervised those who participated in the installation of the work.

colorful mural and mosaic bench
Ile Ife Guardian mural designed and painted by Lily Yeh and the Village crew in 1990, restored, with the help of Mural Arts and artist Felix St. Fort, in 2015. The mosaic bench created by James (Big Man) Maxton, Village crew and volunteers in the 1990s. Village of Arts and Humanities. Photo courtesy of the artist.

For the new park, The Pennsylvania Horticultural Society provided trees, shrubs, and flowers, and the Anti-Graffiti Network (now Mural Arts Philadelphia) brought painters, equipment, and a protective cyclone fence. Within a central brick circle, Yeh and Williams built nine-foot columns of cement and wire on a mound of cobblestones, and local children painted these “trees” in vivid colors. Later, both the “trees” and smaller sculptures around them were covered with multicolored chunks of tile.

Overlooking this scene, on a 35-by-90 foot wall of the adjacent building, Yeh and assistants painted The Village’s Ile Ife Guardian mural. The artwork is installed on the side of The Village’s main education building, and serves as a backdrop to performances and community events in the space, which is now named the Ile Ife Park “Center for Creation.” In 2015, the 3,000 square foot mural underwent major conservation with the help of Mural Arts and artist Felix St. Fort. It was recreated and painted on a special mural cloth and the wall where the mural is located was repaired.

The Village of Arts and Humanities has expanded over the years to include numerous buildings, parks, gardens, murals, mosaics, and sculptures. Yeh worked with artists, builders, educators, and community residents to develop the vision of The Village’s public spaces. Yeh stepped down as executive director in 2004, but the North Philly arts organization under new leadership continues to grow and offer year-round arts and educational programming, and engages the neighborhood and broadens its outreach. The Village now provides theatrical productions, festivals, exhibits, and artist residency programs.

Adapted in part from Public Art in Philadelphia by Penny Balkin Bach (Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1992).

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