Urban art installation helps Providence see the big picture
Jane Kratsch’s lunch routine tends not to vary much.
Kratsch, assistant manager of Coastway Community Bank, walks up to the second floor, eats a sandwich, and works on a jigsaw puzzle. When she looks out the window onto Washington Street, she gets a commanding view of a brick wall.
But a few months ago the landscape was dramatically altered, thanks to Providence photographer Mary Beth Meehan and her urban art installation, “Seen/Unseen.” Meehan spent a year making billboard-scale portraits of ordinary, uncelebrated Providence residents, which were reproduced on banners and installed on the sides of downtown buildings.
Now Kratsch gazes out the bank window at a 22-foot-high portrait of Omowunmi Martins, a Nigerian-born Iraq war veteran, wearing a colorful headwrap and a pensive smile.
“She’s staring at me, but in a nice way,” said Kratsch, who has never met Martins but now wants to. “Isn’t she gorgeous?”
Martins’s portrait is one of eight that have been installed on and near Washington Street; another 14 are on Meehan’s blog, which tells the stories of the people behind the photos. Because of their size, intimacy, and subtle visual insights into the subjects’ lives — a crisp white shirt, a mattress on the floor, a gauzy pink apron — each portrait suggests a narrative. It’s hard for a passerby not to get drawn in.
Meehan’s subjects include Marina Goodman, an Orthodox Jew wearing a traditional sheitel (wig), whose image is mounted on the side of an elevated walkway. A wall of a gay bar is adorned with a 30-foot-wide portrait of writer and academic Rosaleen Keefe, who is breast-feeding her baby, looking sultry and sleep-deprived. Nearby is a 31-foot vertical portrait of Wannton St. Louis, a Haitian school bus driver, who appears subdued and distinguished in a suit and tie.
The photos have transformed the cityscape, prompted dialogue about the meaning of community and about urban stereotypes, and accomplished the almost-unthinkable: getting people to look up from their mobile devices and actually talk to one another.
This happened to Emily Crowell, deputy director of communications for Providence Mayor Jorge Elorza. Riding a bus a few weeks ago, she recognized Marina Goodman from her portrait. “I said, ‘I see you every day outside my window!’ ” Crowell recalled of the conversation she’d started — something she’d never done before. (“I’d just look at Twitter the whole time.”)
Meehan, 48, is a former staff photographer for the Providence Journal, where she worked from 1995 to 2002. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Globe. Previous Meehan projects include a series of photos of the living spaces of undocumented workers (absent the occupants), and the plight of Mayan Guatemalans in New Bedford who have been victimized by violence.
Meehan was born in Brockton, where she lived until 1985. Her father is of Irish descent, her mother’s background is Italian, and Meehan is sensitive to the voices of newcomers and how dislocation and anti-immigrant sentiment can fracture a community.
“I’m always preoccupied with the barriers that keep human beings from connecting,” said Meehan, whose 2011 project “City of Champions” used the streets of Brockton as a setting. The project captured the everyday lives of residents navigating Brockton’s precarious transition from thriving urban center to struggling post-industrial city. “There are all these man-made reminders of race, class, religion, politics, [which] prevent people from seeing one another as human beings.”
The racial and cultural diversity of Providence are reflected in Meehan’s subjects. Among them are Annye, Pitts, an elderly African-American woman who came to Providence from Alabama in 1959 as a domestic worker; Vietnamese-born Lam Thuan Son, 65, who was tortured by Cambodian soldiers and now works on an assembly line; and Delmi Bonilla from El Salvador, who sells hot breakfast out of her car to factory workers. There’s Fernando Oliveros from Guatemala, who crossed the Rio Grande on foot and now owns his own auto-body shop.
It’s not every photographer who can talk strangers into posing for portraits that will be writ large in their city’s business district. But Meehan has an easy warmth, disarming manner, and a lot of patience — which was put to the test when she decided to include someone from the Orthodox Jewish community in “Seen/Unseen.”
Meehan was drawn to the community out of curiosity and — as she admits on her blog — out of anger, too. “When I pass them on foot, I say ‘Hello,’ but often they don’t meet my eye,” she wrote. “When they didn’t engage with me I would get angry. And when I saw the women, with their bodies encased in clothing and their many children trailing them, I would think how oppressed they must be. I’d get angry about that too.”
To access these women, she reached out to a Hebrew school rabbi, who wasn’t exactly swept off his feet by her project idea. Finally, after a series of phone calls, e-mails, meetings, and even a letter of reference, he asked Meehan to describe her work in writing. Finally, he connected her with them.
Several women refused to be photographed, saying it would conflict with their law of modesty. But Marina Goodman, a writer and investment specialist, was intrigued, as she explained in a blog post of her own, “Why I Let a 5 Foot Photo of Me Be Hung in Downtown Providence”:
“Instead of shrugging her shoulders and judging [Meehan] decided to get past her anger and what she realized might be superficial first impressions in the best way she knew how — through her camera,” Goodman wrote. “Her sincerity, and desire to get past her initial negative feelings, deeply impressed me.”
Meehan’s project, funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts “Our Town” grant, will be up through July. “I just think it’s a project that really describes the city in a really understated, beautiful way,” said Lynn McCormack, former director of Providence’s Department of Arts, Culture + Tourism, who worked with Meehan on the project.
“She has this ability to capture the soul and intention of a person,” McCormack said. “You can look at these people in a way that is safe, and have a relationship with them that you might not have if you’d see them on a bus or run into them in the supermarket.”
Meehan said she’s been very moved by the public’s response to “Seen/Unseen” — with the possible exception of one parking-lot attendant, who told her it was a stupid investment by the city and he was sorry he’d have to live with it through the summer.
“The work lingers and it resonates and it’s timely,” said Amy Art Cohen, a personal stylist and co-manager of Clad in, a Providence women’s wear store. “There is so much in the news about terrorism and racial profiling. You may want to ignore someone walking past you because they are invisible. But the scale of this work is larger than life — you have to see them. I don’t think she knew the impact this was going to have.”
Neither did Dr. Ehsun Mirza, an intensive-care physician who works in Warwick, R.I. When he and his wife saw the portrait of Keefe nursing her child they literally stopped in their tracks. “It just drew us like a magnet,” he said. “We stood there for 10 or 15 minutes talking about it, wondering why is she looking at us that way, why is she having a very private moment [in public] with this child? It was like one of those movies you see and remember for years, like ‘The Godfather.’ ”
The portraits have affected the subjects as well. Oliveros, who posed in a red tank top in the doorway of his auto-body shop, said people now start conversations with him, and his business has tripled.
Shebna Wagnac said the dramatic photo of Wannton St. Louis, her Haitian father, has thrilled not only her family but also people back in Haiti. “With social media, this picture came out instantly, and he was getting calls from Haiti,” said Wagnac, a social worker. “They thought he was the next Obama. A picture like that is such prestige.”
Meehan photographed St. Louis, a retired, gray-haired school bus driver, in a white shirt, tie, and dark overcoat; his hand is pressed softly to his chest.
“The photo shows exactly who he is,” said Wagnac. “Calm, soft-spoken, shy, but with such a strong presence. Usually when a reporter goes to Haiti, they see all the struggles. So I’m just so happy he got his moment. I already know what kind of father I have.”
Mary Beth Meehan will lead a walking tour of the installation Friday, June 3, at 6 p.m. preceded by a reception at 5:30 and followed by a public discussion. For information, visit www.artsnowri.com