The Artist

Biography | Statement 2012 | Statement 2004

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.

Read Robert´s AWTT Blog. You can contact him to inquire about commissioning a portrait. 



Artist's Statement, 2012

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.

  1. Foundational Truths: The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution  express our ideals of equality and justice, which are defined truths of our nation. 
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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


Artist's Statement, 2004

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