Charles Coe, a 2017 City of Boston Artist-in Residence, spent last year walking around Mission Hill talking to people, collecting their personal stories and a photograph of them. That led to the project, “What You Don’t Know about Me,” which was recently exhibited at the Boston Public Library at Copley and is now at Parker Hill Branch Library through January. The Gazette recently conducted a question-and-answer session through email with Coe about the project. (The session has been edited.)
Q.: How did the project, “What You Don’t Know About Me,” come about?
A.: When I was chosen as a 2017 Artist-in-Residence for the city of Boston, and chose to work on Mission Hill, my commitment was to create a community-based, collaborative project that would somehow help support community pride and connection. My idea for WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW ABOUT ME came from talking with people in the neighborhood about their experiences with being stereotyped, and from reflecting on my own experiences in that realm.
One time a few years ago I was driving on a two-lane country road in Western Mass behind a beat-up pickup truck with a bumper sticker on back. I assumed the sticker said something like, “Keep Your Hands Off My Guns” or “Vote For Bush” or some such. But when the driver stopped to turn left I pulled up close enough to see it said, “Real Men Don’t Hurt Women: Hilltown Men Against Domestic Violence.” Thinking back on that as I was designing my project reminded me that sometimes we ALL prejudge each other.
Q.: How well did you know Mission Hill before you did the project? What did you learn during the course of the project?
A.: I lived in Roxbury, on Fort Hill back in the 80s. I have friends, old and new, in that neighborhood and get over there fairly often. During the course of the project I was reminded of something I’ve known for some time–that Mission Hill is not only one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the city, it’s the one where people seem best at simply going about their business and getting along with each other.
Q.: How long did the project take? What were the challenges? Was it difficult to get people to talk to you?
A.: My project took a year; that was the length of the 2017 city of Boston Artist Residency during which I worked on Mission Hill. There were ten artists chosen for the program and I asked to be assigned here. And it was challenging at first to get people to talk to a stranger about some issues in their lives that could be quite personal. Some people didn’t want to. I probably approached a dozen people for each one who decided to participate. And there were people I interview who backed out. I was disappointed, but I respected their decisions. My big disappointment was that I wasn’t able to get any of the Muslims who live or work on the hill to be part of the project. It might have been that given some of what’s going on in America nowadays they weren’t comfortable with the publicity.
Q.: Who were some of the memorable people you met and what were their stories?
A.: All 16 of the people I profiled were memorable in different ways. There was the woman who came here from Ukraine with a thirteen-year-old daughter who spoke little English and went on to win a Rhodes Scholarship. There was the writer who thought she’d spend a year or two in Japan as a change of pace and wound up marrying a Japanese man, living there for 40 years and becoming a famous writer and journalist there.
Q.: What is your prior experience as an artist?
A.: I’m a writer and poet who has four books in print, with a fifth coming out next April. I’ve been teaching writing for years, and right now I teach in a low-residency MFA program at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island. I’ve always been interested in how we can use the arts to develop community and help us learn about each other. And creating a project like this seemed like a perfect opportunity to do that.
Q.: Anything else you would like to add?
A: I’m humbled and gratified that the people in the exhibit trusted my and my fantastic photographer, Gordon Webster, with their stories. Some of them told me at the beginning that they were “just” ordinary people and didn’t know why I was interested in them. But as you look at the exhibit, you immediately see how interesting and special they are. Everyone has a story. If we just take the time to listen to and learn from each other it’s obvious that human beings are amazing creatures.
[This article has been updated.]