How 17 Outsize Portraits Rattled a Small Southern Town


“I do not know if Newnan had looked at itself this closely before now,” said Robert Hancock, a lawyer and real estate consultant who, as president of Newnan’s Artist in Residence program, helped commission the installation.

Newnan was a hospital town that treated soldiers on both sides of the Civil War. The town found its prosperity, in part, in the cotton industry, and at one point, Newnan was one of the wealthiest towns per capita in the United States.

When Mr. Hancock moved to town in 1986 there were about 12,000 people. The population today is pushing 40,000, with the biggest growth spurt occurring between 2000 and 2010. In that decade alone, the population doubled.

White people still make up more than half the population, but the newcomers are largely from other backgrounds. The share of Hispanics has more than doubled, while the Asian population, although still small, grew more than fivefold between 2000 and 2017. In that same period, the black population dropped from about 42 percent of the population to 28 percent.

The sheer size of the town’s growth has led some to bristle. “People are wrestling with the numbers, asking themselves, ‘Is this going to make us more like the big city we don’t like?’ and ‘How can we keep this small-town feeling?’” said Cynthia Jenkins, the first African-American woman elected to the City Council, in 2003. “If there are less people in the grocery store I recognize, then are we getting too big?”

“Seeing Newnan,” as the art installation is called, was created by the photographer Mary Beth Meehan. Mr. Hancock and Chad Davidson, director of the University of West Georgia’s School of the Arts, were in Providence, R.I., for an art conference in 2015 when they saw one of Ms. Meehan’s installations.


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