If you live in Providence and haven’t heard of Mary Beth Meehan, odds are good that you’re still familiar with her artwork – it’s been pretty tough to miss this past year. Eight massive photography portraits of “everyday citizens” were printed on vinyl and stretched across eight buildings in Downtown Providence, a public installation in tandem with June 2015’s Providence International Arts Festival. The portraits were selected from Mary Beth’s ongoing photography project entitled Seen/Unseen, in which she “navigates the communities in her native New England, trying to meet her neighbors and describe what life is like for the people around her.”
he towering faces of “unknown” citizens (meaning non-celebrities) scaling major building facades initially incited a public response ranging from shock and confusion to awe and wonder. Mary Beth says that it has been fascinating to observe how public sentiment has evolved over a year as the installation became a predictable part of the downtown landscape – though never intended as a permanent one. As of this writing, the portraits are slated to come down at the end of July.
“When they first went up, it was all kind of shocking,” Mary Beth says. “’Who is that? Why is it up there?’ Over time, questions became philosophical: ‘Why am I shocked by a 30-foot picture of an ordinary person, but not by a 40-foot banner of a celebrity, model or advertisement?’ There are those among us who are more or less visible in the community. ‘If I passed that person on the street, would I talk to them? What are my presumptions? How are we separate?’”
With Seen/Unseen, Mary Beth seeks to answer a question: “What are the barriers and filters that get in the way of us seeing or knowing each other, and how can
I use my photography to break those down?” She allows her creative eye to guide her to people she finds interesting on the street, and then gamely approaches them – total strangers, in most cases. Those encounters would then inevitably lead to a fascinating “chain reaction of interactions” and stories unfolding, which Mary Beth then aimed to capture through her lens.
“Over time and with numerous people, it feels like my work has had an impact,” she says. “Providence is very segregated in some neighborhoods, which is amazing given the diversity in the state. It’s also significant to be making art in the city where I actually live. It holds you to a certain level of accountability that you don’t have as a visiting artist. What happens if I show my work visibly in the community and have to live here and see the people and witness my art’s impact?” An early June near-anniversary walking tour of the portraits sought to generate more feedback and impressions from the public.
“When they come down, are people going to say, ‘I wish I’d appreciated them more? It all looks so bare without them,’” Mary Beth muses. “There might be something about the temporality of it that’s like a performance. Part of me thinks it would be great for them to stay forever, and part of me feels that everything is temporary. Who knows, maybe there will be more in the future.”
Various locations downtown through July 31