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Art Review: Magic Penny Garden blooms here

Saturday, July 20, 2002

By Mary Thomas, Post-Gazette Art Critic

Once upon a time there was a princess who was very, very kind and so gifted that she recognized what constituted true sources of happiness and beauty. Her good deeds were known throughout the kingdom.

Internationally acclaimed artist Lily Yeh, founding director of the Village of Arts and Humanities in inner-city Philadelphia, works on her Magic Penny Garden at Frank Curto Park. She'll participate in the public dedication ceremony for her artwork and that of Daniel Ladd from 2 to 4 p.m. tomorrow. (Catherine McConnell)

The entrance to Curto Park is one-half mile past the light at Herron Avenue and Bigelow Boulevard, heading Downtown. Orange posts mark either side of the abrupt right turn into the park, and Flom suggests slowing down and signaling on the heavily traveled boulevard.

One particularly lovely morning, while the dew still lay like liquid crystal and streaks of luminescent pink in the sky announced the sun's arrival, the princess stared lovingly at her garden and realized that all of the plants in it had been given to her by friends who brought them from their own gardens.

Her first response was joy!

Her second was how wonderful it would be if everyone could share the peace she felt at that moment.

And thus were born the "Magic Penny Gardens."

While Pittsburgh environmental artist Stephanie Flom's project is grounded in the present, and derives from a full awareness of the contemporary art dialogue, it also has a component of fable about it. The gardens are founded on the principle of sharing and its rewards. They're part of a larger endeavor that Flom is conducting as a fellow at Carnegie Mellon's STUDIO for Creative Inquiry: the Persephone Project, which promotes gardening as a contemporary art medium and recognizes gardeners as artists.

The first of the Magic Penny Gardens -- a collaboration among Philadelphia artist Lily Yeh, local volunteers who contributed plants and time, and chainsaw sculptor Joe King -- will be recognized in a public ceremony from 2 to 4 p.m. tomorrow to dedicate the ArtGardens in Frank Curto Park on Bigelow Boulevard.

It's appropriate that Yeh designed the first Magic Penny Garden since her own story has mythical underpinnings.

A Taiwanese artist trained in traditional Chinese painting, Yeh came to the United States to study.

A 1986 commission to create a park in a desolate inner-city Philadelphia lot was nearly abandoned when she was told that as an outsider she'd never be accepted in the neighborhood, that children would destroy the project, only half of her $5,000 grant request was approved and the space grew from one lot to 11 when 10 adjacent houses were leveled.

Yeh decided the task was impossible, and was preparing to withdraw from the commission when "a very tiny voice" inside her said "you must rise to the occasion or the best of you will die and the rest of you will not amount to anything."

Today the nonprofit Village of Arts and Humanities (www.villagearts.org) that she founded and directs is nationally and internationally acclaimed.

From a beginning that spanned three summers when only children helped her to construct concrete and discarded brick forms in a dirt-caked lot, Yeh has built a nonprofit organization that serves more than 10,000 families living within a 260-block area. The Village now has clients in Kenya, Ecuador, the Republic of Georgia and Italy.

Among the stunning visual art in Philadelphia are "Angel Alley," a mural of towering colorful angels based on Ethiopian Christian traditions -- "Life in our neighborhood is very dangerous, with mines like drugs. ... [We created] the presence of angels to protect our community"; a fabulous courtyard-like "Meditation Park" -- "Inner city life is so tense and dense. It's a place to relax, reflect, reconnect and re-center"; and a flower field and tree farm populated by concrete and mosaic African animals.

But there also are vegetable gardens, a nutrition program, a press that publishes a newsletter and books, family programs, classes in computer use, digital movie and music making, and a traveling theater troupe that performs stories taken from everyday life. "Some of the [stories] are so dark that if you hold them inside they can destroy a family, can destroy a community."

While Yeh acknowledges that community-building is a laborious process, her tenacity over 16 years has produced remarkable results that, as Manchester Craftsmen's Guild arts and education director Joshua Green puts it, illustrate the "deep and important roles artists have to play in the revitalization of urban community."

Also part of the ArtGardens is a sculpture comprising three pairs of sycamore trees that have been grafted into "Three Arches" by Vermont artist Daniel Ladd. Inspired by the notion of a croquet lawn, Ladd created a "landmark ... a reference point for passing motorists and pedestrians next to this busy route into and out of Downtown," which they may watch change over time. Pittsburgh garden designer Richard Liberto, who's been instructed by Ladd, has volunteered to maintain the trees.

The new works join John Henry's large, geometric yellow steel sculpture, "Pittsburgh," and a folk memorial to a life lost in a car accident, forming a continuum of art and community and re-energize a charming green space with great views of the city.

The intent of the Persephone Project is to inspire Magic Penny Gardens all over town, and two are being shaped this summer by artists in neighborhoods adjacent to Curto Park: Paul Bowden in Polish Hill on Dobson Street near Downing, and Jorge Myers in the Hill District on Centre Avenue near Devilliers.

"It's a challenge to be optimistic and be taken seriously in the same breath," Flom mused recently as she watched volunteers giving form to Yeh's plan. "I think art has come out of a period of being so dark, and maybe [it's taking] a new direction. Art's job was to expose the ugly. Art's job [might also be] to find the depth of the beautiful, which has been trivialized and almost marginalized."

The important thing is that she, Yeh and persons like them, are involved in creative acts that spring from a mysterious, persistent voice within -- the source of all true art.

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