Robert Shetterly: An artist with an eye for truth


Photo courtesy of Robert shetterly

Shannon Neu
    A&E Editor

In a nation plagued by corrupt politicians and media bias, it can be challenging for American citizens to know who to trust.

Infuriated by the lies and propaganda Americans are frequently exposed to, artist Robert Shetterly devoted his life to telling the truth by creating and presenting portraits of courageous individuals from different points of American history who have made great sacrifices for the benefit and progress of society.

He travels the country with his work, educating people of all ages about the importance of being engaged citizens in a democracy by demanding and sharing the truth about issues that hinder social, economic and environmental justice.

Selections from Shetterly’s portrait series, “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” opened to the public at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum on Nov. 16. The exhibit will be open through Feb. 13, 2016.

Subjects of “Americans Who Tell the Truth” portraits include familiar faces, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Langston Hughes, Pete Seeger and Muhammad Ali. Others feature lesser-known but just as important individuals, such as civil rights lawyer Van Jones, grade school student and peace activist Samantha Smith and environmentalist Bill McKibben. The subjects featured in the series come from all walks of life and from various periods of American history. While many are no longer living, others are alive and have worked with Shetterly in person.

“It’s an attempt to paint some of the people from both our history and also from our contemporary lives, who have tried to close the gap between what we say about our ideals and what we actually do,” Shetterly explained. “That has been a problem since the beginning of this country- even before the beginning of the country- saying one thing and then doing something very different, and then creating a mythological framework to make it sound as though those two things are the same.”

The exhibit features 52 of Shetterly’s works. Each portrait includes a significant quote by the painting’s subject and is accompanied by a brief summary of the subject’s contribution to society. The portraits in this exhibit are divided into nine sections: Anti-Slavery & Civil Rights, Education & Social Justice, Peace Activism, Environment, Workers’ Rights, The Arts, Religion & Society, Politics and Rights: Women’s, Human, LGBT, Indigenous, Economic, Disabled.

Shetterly has painted about 250 portraits in all for the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project.

Enraged by the way the United States government lied to the American people after 9/11 about the supposed need to go to war with Iraq, Shetterly realized that he had to find some way to channel his rage and grief in a way that would positively impact the common good.

“In the wake of 9/11, our political administration at the time began to talk about why we needed to invade the country of Iraq,” Shetterly said. “Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11. They did not have weapons of mass destruction. They did not have a connection with al-Qaeda. We were, as a people, subjected to enormous propaganda and lies and racism and all these means the government uses when it wants to persuade people to do something against their own self-interest: to go to war.”

“What is perhaps more outrageous is that our media went along with it,” Shetterly continued. “The only excuse for a free press in any society is that they attempt to tell the people the truth because we are responsible for what our government does. We give our consent for them to have their power. If we’re not informed properly about what we’re giving consent for, it’s made a mockery of anything resembling democracy.”

Shetterly realized he needed to give up his life as an illustrator and surrealist painter in order to use his art to make a statement about the things he considered to be problems in our society.

“I wanted to find some way to use the energy from my anger and grief in a good way rather than a negative way,” Shetterly recalled. It finally came to me that I could surround myself with people I admire rather than obsess about the people I had no respect for.

Shetterly originally planned for this project to include only 50 portraits. He intended to give them away after meeting that goal. However, by the time he did hit his 50 portrait goal, he was so passionate about his work that he couldn’t just stop. 

“With every portrait and with every day, I was learning an enormous amount about individual people, about history, about what our obligations are as citizens, about ethics,” Shetterly reflected. “It was just amazing. I was just fascinated with what I was learning. Also, the show was beginning to travel so it was taking me all over the United States. I was meeting amazing people, getting to talk to audiences of all kinds, from little kids in school to college students to adults to all kinds of groups.”

Shetterly continued creating paintings for the series. He and his exhibit have travelled all over the nation, telling the stories of Americans who have told and continue to tell the truth. His work has been featured in a variety of settings, including university museums, grade school libraries and the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. Shetterly works to inspire others to take on the role of the informed and responsible citizen who works for the betterment of the community and demands the truth from the media and government. 

“I have no intention of stopping,” Shetterly revealed. “I wouldn’t know how to stop! Every day I hear another story about somebody, or some people who would make good portraits. My deepest regret right now is that I’m not going to be able to paint them all.”

When Shetterly looks for potential people to paint, he looks for individuals with inspiring stories of how their work has positively impacted humanity, nature, or both. His portraits range from civil rights activists, to environmentalists, to politicians, to writers.

“I travel all over and meet people but I’m also just looking for a really good story,” Shetterly explained. “That’s the thing that inspires people to change their consciousness a little bit. They get inspired by stories.”

Whether or not he has met them in person, Shetterly feels a deep connection to all of the subjects of his paintings.

“These are the people who give inspiration and give meaning to my life,” Shetterly said. “I have created my own identity through them. They are essential to me.”

“Some of them become great friends,” he continued. “I do events with the living people. I travel with them. I promote them. I correspond with them. Some of them I meet once, I paint the picture and then we separate, but some of them have become very, very close and it’s a project that has directed my life. The relationships have shaped in a way that I never expected.”

For example, since Shetterly painted Lily Yeh, a community artist from Philadelphia who uses art to rebuild communities, they have taken on various projects around the world together.

The educational aspect of “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” is vital to the message of the project. By teaching about the subjects of the portraits and their stories, Shetterly hopes to inspire people to consider their own engagement in activism and reflect on how they can become responsible citizens in a democracy. He hopes that when people are faced with a problem, they will look to the people in the paintings who faced similar problems for inspiration.

Educational projects that encourage students to become engaged citizens have also come out of “Americans Who Tell the Truth.”

“We’ve got a project going in the state of Maine that is all based on the life of one of the portraits here- this little girl Samantha Smith- where we’re challenging middle school kids all over the state in to do something in her spirit,” Shetterly said.

In 1982, 10-year-old Samantha Smith wrote to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov to ask whether the USSR intended to start a war. Andropov replied, inviting her to visit the Soviet Union to see that the people there were peaceful and had no desire to start a war. Smith’s visit to the Soviet Union inspired her to become a peace activist.

Through the Samantha Smith Challenge, middle school students are encouraged to take action by identifying a problem, researching the problem, finding people who are engaged on both sides of the issue and working towards a solution. Shetterly wants youth to learn that they are powerful and that they too can be involved in activism.

“Adults get so caught up in the systems and the complications of their lives that they’re afraid to change anything,” Shetterly mentioned.

The International Civil Rights Center and Museum is also currently displaying “Americans Who Tell the Truth”-inspired pieces of art created by local students. The portraits created by students feature individuals from their own lives who are truth-tellers.

“Part of the effort of this and what those kids are doing is to give either yourself or other people permission to think differently,” Shetterly explained. “When you see a lot of intense people who dedicated their lives to making more justice, they offer you that. They say you have permission to get out of your prejudices. You have permission to think differently about this issue. You have permission to be more creative in the way you’re going to live your life and from what end- are you going to live it for yourself or are you going to live it for the common good?”

“I want to give people permission to think more about living their lives for the common good because that’s the only thing that’s going to save us,” Shetterly continued. “As communities, as societies, as countries, we have to think that we’re all in this together. It’s not about me getting rich and you getting poor, that model is a terrible one. Injustice creates friction and friction creates war.”

Shetterly has been impressed with his experience in North Carolina so far.

“I didn’t know what to expect coming here. It’s been amazing. I don’t think any other community I’ve been in has embraced this as much as this area,” Shetterly said. “I’ve met amazing people who understand what this is about in a way that some communities don’t.”

Greensboro is a city with a rich history of involvement in the civil rights movement. Shetterly was impressed to find a community that has been extremely open to his work and ideas.

Through the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” exhibit at the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Shetterly hopes to play a part in creating and continuing dialogue about racism, inclusiveness and making sure everyone has a voice within the issues that matter to them.

Every aspect of Shetterly’s journey with “Americans Who Tell the Truth” has been a surprise to him.

Though he does not know specifically what is in store for him and his series next, he is looking towards the future with an open mind.

He hopes to eventually donate the portraits to an institution that will continue to use them for education.Where ever this project takes him, Robert Shetterly undoubtedly will continue to be an American who tells the truth.

Categories: Arts & Entertainment, featured, Uncategorized, Visual & Performance

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