Painting those who speak truth to power

September 9, 2014


Robert Shetterly’s portrait series, Americans Who Tell the Truth, contains 200 paintings of historical figures who witnessed for peace and justice, including Malcolm X, Paul Wellstone, and Mark Twain.


The portraits are oil-on-wood, 30 inches by 36, with a quote from the subject scratched into the background.


Born in 1946, Shetterly studied English Literature at Harvard and was active in the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam War movements. After graduation, he moved to Maine and made a living as an illustrator. His work appeared in The Maine Times, the National Audubon Society’s children’s magazine, and Audubon Adventures.


Shetterly also did a series based on the Annunciation (when the Virgin Mary learns she is to give birth to Christ) and another on William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (“If the fool would persist in his folly, he would become wise”).


Like most Americans, he was shocked when terrorists crashed airliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on September 11, 2001. “Everything changed for me in the wake of 9/11. But it wasn’t 9/11 itself that caused that. Within just a few days, our government was promoting a war with Iraq, a country that didn’t have anything to do with 9/11.”


Feeling “anger, grief, cynicism, and shame,” painting was where Shetterly found his voice—but nobody would look at the pictures; they weren’t “positive.” So he surrounded himself with Americans he admired, “all those people who have given their lives to make this country live up to its ideals.”


He didn’t sell the paintings, because his subjects would not have. “If it ends up that I’ve got a lot of paintings in my basement that nobody ever sees, that’s okay.”


He began with 19th century poet Walt Whitman, a drifter and homosexual whose work celebrated the body and was scorned as obscene. Whitman’s words, scratched into Shetterly’s paint, tell us “to love the earth and sun and the animals, to despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and...take off your hat to nothing, known or unknown.”


Another subject, contemporary poet, essayist, and farmer, Wendell Berry, plows with horses and exemplifies the ethics of self-reliance. Berry’s painting says: “The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of our young people in war, but lack the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”


White Earth Ojibwe leader Winona LaDuke concurs. The problem is unsustainable consumption, requiring constant intervention into other people’s lands.


On his portrait, Will Allen, former Kentucky Fried Chicken executive turned urban farmer in Milwaukee, answers the question Berry and LaDuke raise, “In order to build a new food system, we’re going to need a world without fences. We all have responsibility to work together. We need everyone at the table. We’re going to need black and white, young and old, rich and poor...Not least, we’re going to need a new generation of farmers.”


There are surprises among the paintings. Former President Dwight Eisenhower rubs shoulders with freed slaves and leftists in a statement that says that every weapon signifies a theft from the hungry. “The world is not spending money alone, but the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children.”


Helen Keller’s story of rising above the twin disabilities of blindness and deafness has inspired generations, beginning with Mark Twain. Keller’s portrait says rights are not inalienable. “We get [rights]when we are strong enough to make good on our claim to them.”


Rosa Parks is among those Shetterly portrays, but he also painted Claudette Colvin, a Montgomery teenager arrested for refusing to surrender her bus seat nine months before Parks was. Colvin was a plaintiff in Browder v. Gayle, which decided that segregated bus seating violated the Fourteenth Amendment. “I kept thinking why don’t the adults around here just say something?”


Woody Guthrie is among the portraits. His statement is a verse from “This Land Is Your Land.” Not the one about wheat fields waving and dust clouds rolling. It’s not even the one about which side of the no-trespassing sign is made for you and me. “One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple/By the relief office, I saw my people/As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if/This land is made for you and me.”


Shetterly tours with his paintings, giving talks at schools, churches, universities, and libraries.

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