The giants peering at you in Providence are more than just pretty faces

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — The three-story faces that add color to the Providence skyline are only the beginning of the story, and of their story.

The installations of Mary Beth Meehan’s Seen Unseen exhibit that adorn seven structures – and are the size of buildings – started as portraits on her blog.

“They were only supposed to be up for a year,” Meehan said as we walked down Snow Street. “They make you realize how little you know about your neighbors.”

Among those neighbors, a 30-by-20 image of Syrian refugee Bidur, whose smiling face looks down on the folks who drive and walk on Snow.

Her image is a welcome sight for her friends and fellow refugees, the Alshamseni family.

“And this is good for us,” Baraa Alshamseni said, with Bidur’s face looking over her shoulder. “Because we are good people.”

Baraa, her husband and three children came to the U.S. about seven months ago from war-torn Syria.

“Our home is not safe now. We have to stay here,” she said. “We are lucky. Yes, we are lucky. And this [banner] makes us feel welcome.”

With refugees and faces from various cultures part of Seen Unseen mix, there are also critics.

Some, including a downtown worker, have told Meehan what he thinks to her face, while others prefer to comment on social media.

“Someone wrote on there, disgusting or despicable,” said Meehan. “I think I wish that person didn’t have that opinion, but I’m not afraid of those opinions because at least we’re sort of talking.”

She said that is part of the idea: to talk and think about perfect strangers who you can’t miss as you walk through the capital city.

“I think what people are realizing is the huge banners make them more curious about the person, than if that person was sitting next to them on RIPTA,” Meehan added. “They sort of say, ‘oh my God, who is that? Why is that person there?'”

The answers might be in the viewer’s imagination and even stereotypes, but if you’re curious, Meehan’s blog offers details about the lives behind the faces.

And the city has asked Meehan to not only keep the banners up, but to change some of images to give residents and visitors new strangers to welcome into their thoughts.

Email Walt at wbuteau@wpri.com with you story ideas and follow us on Twitter:@StreetStories12 and @wbuteau.