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Inside Out

In Charles Coe’s exhibit, snap judgments meet their match

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Inside Out
photo: celina colby Charles Coe’s “What You Don’t Know About Me,” exhibit is on display at the Boston Public Library. Photo:Celina Colby

Poet Charles Coe has christened Gallery J at the Boston Public Library Central with its first exhibit, “What You Don’t Know About Me,” on view through September 30. Featuring portraits of and quotes from Mission Hill residents, Coe illustrates the age-old adage, “Never judge a book by its cover.”

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Subjects for Coe’s project run the gamut from activists and artists to policemen and social workers. Coe says people often surprise him once he gets to know them. “I’m an African American man, I’m used to people sizing me up,” he says. “But I also love having my own misconceptions shattered.” He recalls an afternoon when three young men downtown asked him for directions. They looked like average tourists, but as Coe began to chat with them and revealed he’s a poet, one of the men abruptly recited “Jabberwocky” from memory.

In “What You Don’t Know About Me,” Coe seeks to reveal similar surprises in his subjects. This exhibit expands Coe’s 2017 project as a Boston Artist in Residence. The BPL iteration contains several new panels and stories, including an original poem Coe wrote about the project.

The exhibit imparts a special impact in Gallery J, situated at the heart of the newly renovated Johnson Building. Hundreds of people from all walks of life stroll through the library halls every day. Just like Coe’s subjects, every library guest has a story. Coe hopes viewing the exhibit will cause people to think twice before making snap judgments about their fellow Bostonians.

One panel features Yelena Piliavsky, a native Ukrainian, whose family fled to the United States in 1993. After her daughter had begun applying to colleges, Piliavsky was startled by a knock on the door. It was a Boston Globe reporter. Concerned they had done something wrong, Piliavsky asked what the reporter needed. They replied that her daughter had won a Rhodes Scholarship and the paper wanted to publish the story.

Coe found his subjects by walking through Mission Hill and approaching people in local businesses. He found that while many people said they didn’t have much of a story, his interviews with them were filled with rich anecdotes. By pairing the stories in panels designed by Noel Danforth with black-and-white portraits by Gordon Webster, Coe illustrates the cognitive dissonance between appearance and reality.

“Undermining misconceptions and stereotypes is the primary goal,” says Coe. “And with the way this country is going, that’s even more important.”