By MIMI LILIEFELDT
Art has always brought beauty and joy into our lives. It has also been used as a way to communicate and tell stories.
It is widely accepted that art is a form of expression and a tool for bringing people together. Even when opinions differ, it doesn’t matter as much as the appreciation, contemplation, and dialogue that the art evokes.
One person who holds an appreciation for art in its many forms is local store owner and artist, Lily Yee.
Lily is a strong, independent woman with a bright and friendly personality, and she owns The Curated Market on Queen Street East by Wineva Avenue.
Lily bravely opened her store on Aug. 15, 2020, right in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The store has a clean and welcoming aesthetic. It’s filled with a vast array of items made from beautiful textiles such as pillows and headbands, handcrafted soaps, prints and original works by various artists, and of course her own jewelry pieces.
Born in Montreal, Lily and her family moved to Toronto when she was in elementary school. She grew up in Regent Park and was surrounded by a diverse community.
“Growing up in a multicultural environment was what I knew. I don’t know that I ever really felt being treated negatively because I’m Chinese. I’m sure there were probably kids that said mean things to me, but it just didn’t stick,” Lily shared when I asked her if she had ever felt like an outsider.
Lily said that she hasn’t felt like a victim of aggressive racism more than once or twice in her memory, but the idea of how we see ourselves and the stereotypes that we are subjected to flowed in and out of our discussion many times.
“When I was working for a recruitment agency, I had this client (I’d never met) on the phone looking for staff. He asked me, ‘Can you please send me some Asians, because they are such good workers,’” she said.
Some may read that as a seemingly favourable comment and not understand how it could be racist, but let me assure you it most certainly is. The ‘model minority’ is a stereotype that not only strips a person of their individuality but also reduces them to a compliant asset rather than a dynamic human being. These types of remarks are harmful and discriminatory, and by their very nature they are divisive.
My conversation with Lily, helped uncover a valuable topic. In my recent column we discussed the importance of listening, but without proper communication it’s hard to create spaces in which others will want to share.
“I would love to sit in a room with people from a diverse range of backgrounds and have them be able to openly communicate and ask what they are most curious about with no judgement,” said Lily. “I think a lot of people are fearful to ask questions.”
I completely understand what Lily is driving at. The more understanding we have about each other’s lives, experiences, and feelings the more we can create communities that are based in partnerships of mutual support.
“I feel like there’s a lot of fear around being able to ask questions or learn more about someone’s race,” said Lily. “I think people feel like, ‘How will I know if you’re someone who will be angry and tell me to look it up myself or someone who will say, it’s OK you can ask me.’”
We have often heard the rhetoric: “You can’t say anything anymore” or “I’m afraid I’ll say the wrong thing so it’s better to say nothing at all.” This is simply not a true statement, but there are certainly key factors to keep in mind when broaching these sensitive matters.
Language and how we use it are so important, equally so are the who, what, when, where and why. This sounds like common sense and yet time and again we find ourselves in awkward situations.
When curious to learn more about someone’s experience, try to remember three things: Intention – what is your intention for asking this question? Care – be sensitive and careful about how you ask a question. Listen – whatever answer you get it’s now your responsibility to actually listen, even if you don’t like the feedback. And respect the idea if they say you should pick up a book and educate yourself.
Not every person of colour wants to take on the emotional burden of explaining or sharing their experience. Though it may feel harsh and hurt your well-intentioned ego, please try to remember many of their experiences surrounding their race might be uncomfortable or worse.
We all carry pain and it’s hard to know when that pain comes out. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to learn. If your intention is genuine, it just means we try to learn in a different way.
Lily grew up in a household with minimal communication and experienced how it could breathe too much space between people. Having a mother with little maternal instinct that only spoke Chinese, they never bonded, and Lily said she learned to be self-sufficient. At 18 years old Lily moved out and started to forge a path of her own.
“I think I’ve always had street smarts. I had to figure things out on my own,” said Lily. “I went from retail to recruitment and worked my way up. I was really fortunate, and my bosses gave me more and more responsibilities and opportunities.”
Eventually Lily’s final corporate job before becoming a full-time entrepreneur was working for Toronto Community Housing as a Program Supervisor. The last department she worked for was the commercial sector, overseeing the operations and maintenance of retail and restaurant properties.
“When the pandemic hit all the art shows and markets were cancelled and I felt so bad for all the artists. Even though I was among them, I still had my full-time job. I had always thought I’d like to have a store one day, but the reality didn’t seem possible,” said Lily.
“But then one day I was driving and a ‘For Lease’ sign caught my eye, so I called the number and asked what the rent was. They offered to let me see the place and so I thought, ‘What the hell’ and I did. I went home and crunched the numbers and suddenly it started to seem doable. I still had my full-time job, so it didn’t seem as risky. I would not have done it otherwise. Seventeen days later I had the keys in my hands.”
Through her store, Lily has opened a space for artist to share their talents and showcase their methods of self-expression.
As a community we benefit from the beauty and diversity Lily and each of her artists has brought to us.
“I’m working to bring in more work from Black and Indigenous artists,” she told me.
Lily’s hard work paid off and she was able to quit her corporate job. Now she is ready for more and shared that another location is in the works.
Creativity and efficiency come naturally to Lily. She has successfully opened a store that she had barely allowed herself to dream about.
It goes to show that often times your true path isn’t the one you had on paper, it’s the one you kept in your heart.