The Americans Who Tell the Truth project began with art. Part of the reason for that is obvious: I am an artist. And I choose art because it enables me to communicate most profoundly and honestly. When I say communicate, however, I don’t mean that my first concern is communicating with other people. Art allows me to communicate with myself. I paint an image; the image then speaks back to me, informs me of ideas and concerns beyond what I knew I had. The painting becomes a tangible fact in the world whose reality tells its own story. If it tells that story to me, I’m confident it will speak to others.
In the run-up to the Iraq War when I was convinced that many political, military and media figures were lying about the reasons for war, I decided to surround myself with Americans whom I trusted and respected, Americans who had struggled to uphold our fundamental ideals. Truth tellers. I could have written down their names in a notebook. I could have thumb-tacked photos of them to a wall. But neither of those acts would have engaged me in a creative process of respect and recognition the way painting a portrait does. Neither would have required prolonged effort, the kind of effort which committed me to do something about this criminal war. To paint a good portrait one must concentrate hard for many days to fully honor the subject of the portrait, to discover a likeness which not only looks like the person, but speaks like the person, radiates something essential about that person, from that unique person. Art requires an investment of critical and loving energy. If that energy is well used, the portrait will speak with critical and loving energy. Other people will feel it. This process is one of the deep mysteries of art making. Done well, a portrait evokes the presence of a person as no other medium can.
I did not want to feel totally alienated from my own country as the patriotic fervor grew for war. Among my gradually increasing collection of portraits, I found a community, a seemingly living community, where I felt consoled and empowered. I felt at home. Art can do that - bring you home.
Good art takes time. No matter how urgent the issues may be, the most lasting communication will be the most artful, art that strives for beauty and meaning and is willing to take the time to discover them. It was my determination that slowly building a community, portrait by portrait, of Americans who have fought for racial, economic, social and environmental justice would be the most persuasive and educationally useful thing I could do. Their power may be their invitation to a moment of contemplation, the permission they give viewers to stop and think, to agree or disagree, at the same time requiring that they acknowledge the humanity of the person represented before them. If the art can embody the truth of the person, the viewer may be willing to consider the truth of the subject’s words.
The contemplation, the permission, the humanity are all enhanced by the attempt to make real art. Having high standards for our art making shows that we respect the subjects, the viewers and ourselves.
We live in a time of historical and environmental urgency. We are besieged by a cacophony of propaganda, spin, and special interest voices. Most of those voices are purposeful, cheap distractions from the important issues and from the activist work we should be doing. The art of the portraits tries to call us back to essential issues and values, at the same time providing us with models of vision, courage, compassion and citizenship. This art does not insist that you agree with everything it says; it wants you, though, to look it in the eye, to know that what you see is an honest encounter with a real person with real courage working to close the gap between what we say about the common good and what we do. The portraits aspire to be a community of trust. You may disagree with some, but you can trust their intentions. And, in a sense, you could say that all of them are really one portrait, a historical portrait of a country struggling to live up to itself, to discover itself, to become its own dream. A portrait of the dignity of that ambition. Good art carries that burden.
Here are my answers to some questions I’ve been asked about the AWTT project:
What can ART do that other media can't to combat the problems you articulate?
Art can transform the way a message is articulated and received. The medium of art is aesthetic, visual, and visceral. Non-verbal. It doesn’t attack the viewer but invites inquiry and participation. It gives the viewer space to think, feel, react and respond…or not. The viewer becomes the active participant. The portraits in particular try to present a person who emanates integrity, along with a statement about justice and compassion. They try to present an image of trustworthiness. They hope to elicit a response of integrity and trust and consideration of the issue in return.
What is the relationship between art and freedom of speech? How does your project interact with capitalism? With community? With education? With an individual viewer?
One of the expectations and obligations of artists is to use their craft and insight to tell truths many other people would be afraid to, due to peer pressure or job security. Artists who misuse their freedom of speech by lying or propagandizing are soon exposed as untrustworthy artists. Honest speech for an artist is a sacred trust.
Capitalism is nearly a national religion in the U.S. The creed of capitalism to expand markets and increase profits often becomes the justification for enormous damage to environment, law,
the poor, peace, community, equality, democracy and morality. Capitalism values profit more than people and often dehumanizes people to enhance profit. Almost every portrait in the series has taken a position of moral courage on an issue stemming at least in part from the depredations of capitalism.
The portraits are meant to honor people often ignored or demeaned in the media and in our official history. A respectful portrait can help to reclaim the subject’s standing and role as a person worth listening to and emulating. This is the educational value.
What's the difference between seeing one of your portraits and many of your portraits together at once? How does each of these experiences differ in terms of their impact? How can this group of paintings counter the obfuscations that you discuss?
When one views a large collection of the portraits, one is faced with the continuity of moral courage across time and issue, as well as the continuity of injustice. I think a single portrait can present a powerful story, but a collection presents a fabric of story. A viewer may want to use a single person as a role model but be part of the fabric. One may lead to the other.
If one studies the portraits, the issues, and their histories, one is led inevitably to see the obfuscations in the status quo narrative of America.
What would you like AWTTs impact to be? How does what you've done make you feel empowered and engaged? Is this exciting? Does it feel meaningful?
What I would like the impact of AWTT to be and what I can realistically expect it may be are two very different things. I would like people to reorient their sense of what’s good about this country by spending time with the portraits. That is, we are encouraged to believe that America’s
power and wealth derive from power and wealth. The lives of the portraits teach us that the power and wealth of the country are inherent in the insistence of courageous citizens that our country live up to its own ideals. In other words, our real power and our real wealth are found in how fiercely we embrace our ideals, not in our billionaires and Gross National Product. Every country has its powerful billionaires; few have our ideals.
Painting all these portraits over many years has required me to be engaged, to be a spokesperson for the lives and issues of the subjects. It’s been terrifically exciting to learn all this history, come close to the courage, participate as well as I can in some important truths.
Nothing could be more meaningful for me.
What are the limits of your project? Do these make you feel frustrated? Why do you resist talking about your paintings as paintings instead of as people?
As the portraits have multiplied, so have the expectations. It’s initial goal was art therapy for myself - to help me get through a difficult time in the history of this country and the world by aligning myself with truth tellers and activists. It’s taken on the responsibility of education for others. So, there are no actual limits except those of energy and awareness. I’m frustrated at times because I can’t - and the project can’t - do enough to cause needed change.
I like to talk about the paintings as paintings, and how I paint. But if I talk about them as people, it’s because I have tried to paint the spirit of each person. The portraits seem like people to me.
You have created a vast material body of work and expended a great deal of energy on these paintings. I think we should try to address these issues you raise through that body of work.
What are the connections you've made between issues that never would have occurred to you if you hadn't painted certain portraits?
It’s not an exaggeration to say that all the work on the portraits has been about painting, yes, but more so on education - mine. Perhaps the central understanding, that I had not fully appreciated before, was how the betrayal of the ideals of this country has been the conscious goal of wealth and power since the first white contact. Native genocide, slavery, exploitation of workers and environment, racism, the deification of the wealthy, corruption of law and politics to reinforce wealth and power, the propaganda to make the apotheosis of this power appear good and just. On the other side is the courage and nobility of the people who have struggled to insist the country be just, fair, and compassionate, in line with its stated ideals. Until I had painted many portraits I had not fully realized that the connection among all the issues (what we refer today to as intersectionality) is the tension between the willingness of power to do anything - ANYTHING! - to maintain its primacy and the power of tenacious courage to oppose it.
Another connection I had not fully valued - if that is the right word - and understood is my own privilege. Race privilege, wealth privilege. And how much of my life has been undergirded by that privilege. How much of power and wealth distribution, opportunity, in this country is shaped by that privilege. I feel the responsibility of that.
What issues didn't you understand/were you 'wrong' about before you got into this project and learned more? What have you learned about yourself with this project over the last 18 years?
I was naive not to realize how systemic the problems were, the enormous reluctance of people and institutions to create more justice when jobs and security depend on the opposite.
I have learned about myself that I can mirror with the art the determination of many of the people I paint. I have learned how much I love learning, I love discovering what I have got wrong so I can learn more. I’ve learned that I prefer love and expressing love no matter how justified my rage may seem.
Perhaps the most important thing I have learned about myself is that because of the portraits, because I’ve taken the people and issues to heart, I am no longer intimidated by power and wealth, title and pedigree, prestige or uniform.
Do you consider yourself more an activist? More a painter? More a historian? Why?
If I consider myself more of a painter, I feel guilty for not being more of an activist. I have to believe that the art is the activism. And it is. I have come to love the history that surrounds the portraits, but I’m not a historian. I don’t know enough to call myself that. But I am a storyteller about history and how the lives of my subjects have affected history.
How have you grown as a painter? What do you think you can do/see as a painter now that you couldn't before?
Hopefully, after nearly 250 portraits, my skills have improved. Counterintuitively, as I have improved as a portraitist, I think I’ve become more humble as an artist. I’m one guy trying to do one thing well. I don’t know if it really matters at all, but I can’t think of what I could do that would make me feel any more sure, any more engaged. Living in that doubt spurs me to try to make each portrait better than the last. If I were to give up painting the portraits to, say, work full time for 350.org, who would paint the portraits? I think of what Paul Robeson said, the quote I scratched into his portrait:
“The talents of an artist, small or great, are God given. They’ve nothing to do with him as a private person; they’re nothing to be proud of. They’re just a sacred trust… Having been given, I must give. Man shall not live by bread alone, and what the farmer does I must do. I must feed the people—with my songs.”
I don’t know if the portraits are ‘a sacred trust,’ but they are my sacred trust. I have a passion and a skill. Perhaps those two things are the only means I have to take full responsibility for my privilege.