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Laughing, flirting, stretching, dreaming, 180 artists from St. Paul's Lowertown are welcoming visitors to the neighborhood via big portrait heads plastered on outside walls.

Unlike billboards, the posterized black-and-white photos carry no messages or slogans, just cheerful images of ordinary people. Most appear pretty happy, so the effect is upbeat but mystifying.

"It's great to see these expressive portraits in unexpected places," said Charlie Wallace, a computer science professor from Hancock, Mich., who was visiting friends in Lowertown. "On the street, people usually hide the way they feel, but this is quite the opposite. It's a very pleasant surprise."

The project is a local incarnation of Inside Out, Paris, an international "people's art project" started in 2013 by a French artist who goes by the moniker JR. He launched it after winning a $1 million TED prize with a proposal to change the world with art.

Students in Austin, Minn., jumped in early, covering their high school with 92 portraits in spring 2013. In Paris this spring, thousands of portraits were posted in support of the 17 people killed by terrorists in an attack on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. To date nearly 200,000 people in more than 100 countries and territories have posted photos of themselves to promote concerns ranging from environmental degradation to campus safety, neighborhood preservation, creativity, community and hope.

The St. Paul project is an effort to tout Lowertown as a "cultural incubator." For the past 30 years at least, the downtown district's old warehouses and lofts have been home-and-studio to hundreds of artists, photographers, musicians and other creative types whose presence helped transform the area from a neglected backwater into a thriving nexus of urban gentrification.

Each 53-by-36-inch portrait sticks to a simple head-and-shoulders format that democratizes the subjects: Lowertown artists and culturati chosen by their peers. Guys and gals, young or old, bearded, bespectacled, multiethnic — everyone gets equal space and attention in the portraits displayed on walls at 17 sites around Mears Park, Union Depot and the St. Paul Saints' new CHS Field.

They'll be on view through Sept. 12, when Lowertown hosts the Concrete and Grass Music Festival.

"It's really neat that somebody has done something like this," said Terry Vojak, a Coon Rapids resident and passionate Saints fan. "Years ago there was no need to come to downtown St. Paul because there was nothing here, but now there's all this."

His wife, Bonnie Vojak, gently critiqued the display. "I don't like them on that wall because they blend in too much," she said of several photos lined up a blond-brick wall beside the stadium's entrance. "They stand out more over there," she said, rightly pointing to pictures on a red brick wall between dramatic black windows down the street.

All the photos — paid for with donations from area businesses — were taken by local talent: Patrick Clancy, Barbara Dodge, Vaughan Harries, Justin Hedstrom, Darrell Lloyd, Brad Miller, Nancy Reardon and Stephen Workman.

Artist Dan Wieken was drawing one recent morning in the Black Dog Coffee and Wine Bar, which is displaying, through May 30, smaller versions of all 180 photos. His own portrait was included though he was reluctant until a friend talked him into participating.

"I'm shy about pictures in general and to be on a wall seemed a little strange," Wieken said. "But after seeing the whole scope of it, I thought it was a really cool idea."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431