If you drive down Meridian Street and glance at the Central Library this month, more than two dozen giant faces will stare back at you. Who are they? And why are they there?
The photo posters are the Indy incarnation of Inside Out, a global art project initiated by the French artist JR - and your curiosity, and that of viewers around the world, is part of the project's success. JR, a graffiti artist who moved on to photography, is an advocate for placing faces in unexpected places.
Each project has its own implications. JR photographed Palestinians and Israelis with the same type of job, then pasted those photos on opposite sides of the West Bank separation barrier, so that Palestinians might confront their often invisible counterparts, and vice versa. Faces are all you get - JR offers no text at installation sites and only the sparest description on the project's website - so you tend to see his subjects first and foremost as people.
In 2011 JR won the $1 million TED Prize to help others implement similar installations in their communities. Indy residents may recognize his work from this year's Heartland Film Festival, where a documentary short about his work with artist José Parlá won a grand prize. Called "Wrinkles of the City - La Havana," it showed JR and Parla installing portraits of senior citizens who lived through the Cuban Revolution.
Indy's Inside Out was conceived by a group of artists, activists, and friends connected through the Harrison Center for the Arts, including Katie Basbagill, Allison and Jon Ford, Quincy Owens, and Elizabeth and Scott Paul.
The group thought about whom to photograph, and current events supplied an idea. "Within the past year or so there's been a lot of conversation about mass transit," says Jon Ford, who works downtown at Apparatus consulting and frequently rides the bus. "It's typically something that's really hard for a car-centric Midwestern city like Indianapolis to jump into and fully endorse."
So they decided to showcase the city's transit workers. "I've never been a bus driver myself," says Ford, "but I can imagine that sometimes, just like with any other job, you don't get much recognition or reward." The installation, he says, "was a unique way to contribute and keep the dialogue on mass transit alive with an artistic perspective."
The project was a finalist in the 5x5 Indianapolis Arts and Innovation Prize, but when it didn't win, volunteers helped to offset the cost of printing the portraits.
IndyGo and IPL were supportive partners, despite the fact that IndyGo logos on the drivers' uniforms had to be photoshopped out of the portraits. (Inside Out projects must avoid any implication of commercial sponsorship or endorsement.) Portraits will also appear at Big Car Service Center and R Bistro.
The portraits, installed on the library addition, are dwarfed by the building's soaring height and gleaming exterior, so cross the grass to have a closer look. The wheat paste used to post the photos is more generously applied to some portraits than others, giving them a lithograph-like appearance.
While I checked out the installation, I ran into Parrish Turner, a driver in one of the portraits. He hadn't realized the photos were up, but came out to see them when his friends joked that he was famous. He's been driving for about 18 months, and volunteered to have his photo taken because he wanted to support IndyGo. He was happy to have the work, he said.
"But they don't even say we're with IndyGo," he said, sounding a bit disappointed. I reassured him that I'd mention it. Then I thought that he'd hit upon the very point of it all, without either of us realizing it. Parrish Turner drives a bus. But he's also, simply, a guy - a tall, lanky one with a nice smile, who was quick to introduce himself and shake my hand. And I felt glad to meet him.