Robert Shetterly was born in 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated in 1969 from Harvard College with a degree in English Literature. At Harvard he took some courses in drawing which changed the direction of his creative life -- from the written word to the image. Also, during this time, he was active in Civil Rights and in the Anti-Vietnam War movement.
After college and moving to Maine in 1970, he taught himself drawing, printmaking, and painting. While trying to become proficient in printmaking and painting, he illustrated widely. For twelve years he did the editorial page drawings for The Maine Times newspaper, illustrated National Audubon's children's newspaper Audubon Adventures, and approximately 30 books.
Robert´s paintings and prints are in collections all over the U.S. and Europe. A collection of his drawings & etchings, Speaking Fire at Stones, was published in 1993. He is well known for his series of 70 painted etchings based on William Blake's “Proverbs of Hell”, and for another series of 50 painted etchings reflecting on the metaphor of the Annunciation.
His painting has tended toward the narrative and the surreal, however, for more than ten years he has been painting the series of portraits Americans Who Tell the Truth. The exhibit has been traveling around the country since 2003. Venues have included everything from university museums and grade school libraries to sandwich shops, the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, and the Superior Court in San Francisco. To date, the exhibits have visited 26 states. In 2005, Dutton published a book of the portraits by the same name. In 2006, the book won the top award of the International Reading Association for Intermediate non-fiction.
The portraits have given Shetterly an opportunity to speak with children and adults all over this country about the necessity of dissent in a democracy, the obligations of citizenship, sustainability, US history, and how democracy cannot function if politicians don’t tell the truth, if the media don’t report it, and if the people don’t demand it.
Shetterly has engaged in a wide variety of political and humanitarian work with many of the people whose portraits he has painted. In the spring of 2007, he traveled to Rwanda with Lily Yeh and Terry Tempest Williams to work in a village of survivors of the 1994 genocide there. Much of his current work focuses on honoring and working with the activists trying to bring an end to the terrible practice of Mountaintop Removal by coal companies in Appalachia, on climate change, and on the continuation of systemic racism in the US particularly in relation to the school-to-prison pipeline.
Since 1990, he has been the President of the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA), and a producer of the UMVA’s Maine Masters Project, an on-going series of video documentaries about Maine artists.
Awards and commendations:
- In 2005, the Maine People’s Alliance awarded him its Rising Tide award.
- Also in 2005, he was named an Honorary Member of the Maine Chapter of Veterans for Peace.
- In May 2007, Rob received a Distinguished Achievement Award from the University of Southern Maine and gave the Commencement Address at the University of New England which awarded him an Honorary Doctorate in Humane Letters.
- In 2009, he was named a Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow that enables him to do week long residences in colleges around the country.
- The University of Maine at Farmington awarded him an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2011.
Robert Shetterly lives, with his partner Gail Page, a painter and children’s book writer and illustrator, in Brooksville, Maine.
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.
-- Robert Shetterly
Ten years. It’s been ten years since writing the first explanatory statement of why I was painting this series of portraits, Americans Who Tell the Truth. So much has changed, and so much hasn’t.
I began painting with determination and a fantasy. I was determined to use the portraits and the words of the subjects as an act of defiance against the lies of an administration leading the American people into unnecessary and illegal wars. The reason this made sense to me was that the people I was choosing to paint -- most considered icons of the historical struggle for justice and equality -- had all stood up against powerful people and systems which had denied them their rights and dignity. And those powerful forces had used the same techniques -- lies, propaganda, fear and patriotism -- to deny those rights that they use today.
The fantasy was that I could, by painting the portraits of these courageous people, evoke their spirits in some way to help us now. I imagined the ghosts of Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Jones, Jane Addams, Sojourner Truth, Henry David Thoreau, Mark Twain, W.E.B. Du Bois, and all the others marching arm in arm, leading millions of people, down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House to demand the truth about the reasons for the War on Iraq. I imagined them comparing the struggles of their times with issues today so that we would not be so easily manipulated, so easily convinced to give our patriotic approval to causes against our personal interests, the interests of democracy, the environment, and peace. I imagined Frederick Douglass, with his beautiful stentorian voice, addressing the crowd: “…Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong that will be imposed on them.”
Of course, ghosts did not prevent the Iraq War, nor did they prevent a host of environmental, economic, legal, educational, and racial problems since. However, they did propel a remarkable shift in the direction of this project. What began as protest became educational mission. These Truth Tellers can help us, but we have to know their stories.
I realized that I knew little of the true history of this country. I was not alone. Traveling to schools and colleges all over this country I realized that not only students, but teachers, have little idea of our true history. We are unaware of the ongoing struggles for rights and justice in this country, do not know who leads those fights, and have little idea of the forces in our country that make the fight for rights so difficult.
Serendipitously, I met Michele Hemenway, an educator from Louisville, who already was working to teach her students true history. She offered to work with me and develop our curriculum. We are working together now more than ever. And the primary thrust of this educational project is a very simple truth -- a democracy without well educated and active citizens can do nothing but fail.
Students in our schools are failing math and reading. That’s important. The more serious problem is that if they are not taught to be engaged citizens, using true history and models of courageous citizenship, we will lose our democracy. Some would say it is already lost and the challenge is to educate our youth to win it back.
And as educators and students we must ask ourselves a tough question, “Whose interests are served by keeping young people ignorant of their own history, unaware of the importance of citizenship and unaware of the inspiring role models from the past and present who could help solve our most pressing problems?” Ignorance is certainly not in the interest of democracy.
When I tell people the name of this project, Americans Who Tell the Truth, I am frequently met with a sardonic look and asked, “Are there any?” Such is the common attitude about the integrity of our political and economic discourse. People are cynical, rightly so, and depressed at the depth of dishonesty all around them.
And I am often asked, “What do you mean by truth anyway? Isn’t truth relative --- like your version may be true, but isn’t mine, too?” Most relative “truths” are really opinions. With Americans Who Tell the Truth we are focused on verifiable facts, their remedies and ramifications. For instance: Were women in this country excluded from being full citizens? For how long? Why? How did they finally win their rights? What does that teach us about issues today?
We find it helpful to focus on four aspects of truth.
- Foundational Truths: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution express our ideals of equality and justice, which are defined truths of our nation.
- Truth and Trust: Unless people try to tell each other the truth as they know it, they cannot trust each other. And, obviously, any relationship, personal or public, fails without trust.
- True Challenges: Unless we are willing to name the true causes of a problem, we cannot fix it. For instance, if we deny that the burning of fossil fuels plays a role in Climate Change, we will not be able to avert climate catastrophe
- True Knowledge: If we don’t teach our true history, its shame as well as its nobility, we cannot know who we are. People who don’t know themselves are dangerous to themselves and to others because they act from ignorance and self-serving myths.
As I have spent the past 10 years traveling around this country, talking about the people I’ve painted, about their ethics, history and citizenship, I’ve met an extraordinary number of good people. Engaged citizens in every state are determined to solve issues of inequality and injustice, pollution and poor education, money in the political system and corporate media failing to tell the truths citizens in a democracy need to know. The problems are big, but the number of people wanting them corrected is big, too.
Our cynicism and depression will only increase if we expect government to solve these problems for us. We have to demand change, as Frederick Douglass said, and we have to be willing to do it ourselves. The models of courageous citizenship that make up Americans Who Tell the Truth can help.
One more thing. Through this painting, and traveling and talking I have never been so engaged as a citizen as I am now. Nor have I felt as burdened with the weight of serious problems. But before I started this project, I had never experienced the joy that comes from being a member of a community working for a just and sustainable future. Our deepest happiness is found not in monetary wealth and competition, but in the shared spirit of working together for a good cause, for the ideals of this country and for peace.
Americans Who Tell the Truth offers a link between the community of people who struggled for justice in our past and the community of people who are doing it now. To participate in that struggle can be very hard, but it is also a place to find deep friendship, shared courage, respect and dignity. And, only by participating in that struggle will we find hope, or deserve to.
-- Robert Shetterly
The second strong feeling -- the first being horror -- I had on September 11 was hope, hope that the United States would use the shock of this tragedy to reassess our economic, environmental, and military strategies in relation to the other countries and peoples of the world. Many people hoped for the same thing -- not to validate terrorism, but to admit that the arrogance and appetite of the U.S., all of us, have created so much bad feeling in many parts of the world that terrorism is inevitable. I no longer feel hopeful.
If one looks closely at U.S. foreign policy, the common denominator is energy, oil in particular. The world is running out of oil. Political leadership that had respect for the future of the Earth and a decent concern for the lives of American and non-American people would be leading us away from conflict toward conservation and economic justice, toward alternative energy, toward a plan for the survival of the world that benefits everyone. We see hegemony and greed thinly veiled behind patriotism and security. We get pre-emptive war instead of pre-emptive planning for a sustainable future.
The greatness of our country is being tested and will be measured not by its military might but by its restraint, compassion, and wisdom. De Toqueville said, “America is great because it is good. When it ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.” A democracy, whose leaders and media do not try to tell the people the truth, is a democracy in name only. If the consent of voters is gained through fear and lies, America is neither good nor great. Nor is it America.
I began painting this series of portraits -- finding great Americans who spoke the truth and combining their images with their words -- in 2002 as a way of to channel my anger and grief. In the process my respect and love for these people and their courage helped to transform that anger into hope and pride and allowed me to draw strength from this community of truth tellers, finding in them the courage, honesty, tolerance, generosity, wisdom and compassion that have made our country strong. One lesson that can be learned from all of these Americans is that the greatness of our country frequently depends not on the letter of the law, but the insistence of a single person that we adhere to the spirit of the law.
My original goal was to paint fifty portraits. I've gone beyond that and have decided to paint many more. The more I've learned about American history -- past and present -- the more people I've discovered whom I want to honor in this way. The paintings will stay together as a group. The courage of these individuals needs to remain a part of a great tradition, a united effort in respect for the truth. These people form the well from which we must draw our future.
-- Robert Shetterly