Art, Truth & Teaching: An Interview with Robert Shetterly

by Chrissy Bevens, IHE M.Ed. graduate
Chrissy works part-time for the city's parks and recreation department in Corvallis, Oregon, and writes part-time.

(Note: This is part one of a two-part look at Shetterly and the impact of his work. A future issue will feature an interview with teacher Michele Hemenway who has used Shetterly’s work to help her students become changemakers in their community.)

Robert Shetterly is an artist, living and working in Maine, who has taken on a grand endeavor. For the last few years he has been painting portraits. A lot of portraits. He chooses as his subjects “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” Initially he aimed to paint 50 portraits, a number he didn’t really think he would reach. But he did. In 2005 those first 50 were published, along with short accompanying biographies, in an award-winning book, American’s Who Tell the Truth. Now he’s up to more than 150 portraits and confides that he’s still “completely, passionately into it.”

He began with historical figures. People like Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Mark Twain are represented in Shetterly’s portraits, which feature richly-colored backgrounds uniquely inhabited by each painting’s subject. Shetterly also incorporates into each portrait important words spoken or written by the person being honored.

But these examples of important historical figures who lived and died more than a hundred years ago certainly don’t characterize the project as it exists today. Even the inclusion of important individuals active in the twentieth century, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rachel Carson, or the addition of famous contemporary individuals, such as Winona LaDuke and Noam Chomsky, falls short of indicating the full scope of the collection.

Instead, the project lives in the current moment and keeps growing into the future. More and more Shetterly paints contemporary figures. In some cases, their important truth-telling actions qualify as current events. In fact, in this up to the minute mode, one portrait subject can lead naturally to another promising candidate:

"I just painted a portrait of Jesselyn Radack... She was the whistle blower in the Justice Department. She was an ethics lawyer. I heard about her, then I read her book, and then I thought I needed to paint her portrait…. She is now the lawyer for Thomas Drake who was on 60 Minutes last night, and there was a big profile in the New Yorker this week about him. He was the whistleblower at the National Security Agency who exposed warrantless wire tapping there. He seemed to be another person I needed to paint.... I keep finding people that are often overlooked in the media, the major media, and I think young people especially need to know about them."

Young people are learning about them, thanks to their teachers. Educators all over the country incorporate Shetterly’s work into their curriculum, and many especially lucky students have been visited by the artist himself. But this didn’t happen by design.

When asked whether he anticipated the interest of educators when he began the project, Shetterly replied simply: “No, I didn’t anticipate any interest at all. My only intention was that I would feel better. I was so angry and disappointed and grief-struck about where this country was going. And I thought, well I’ll start doing this.” Then he started. He started and he kept going. In the first year, in what he describes as a “white heat,” he painted 25 portraits. The second year resulted in almost as many. All that work, all that art, and yet initially he said he expected to “have a basement with a bunch of paintings in it that nobody would really care about.”

Fortunately that has not happened:

“The education part just sort of came about in interesting ways. Other people recognized it before I did. I'd show them in a sandwich shop in Maine, and I'd get a call from a teacher saying could you come and talk in our school about these paintings …. I kept getting asked and I realized ... because of the investment, not just in the painting, but in the amount of research I was doing in order to do each painting, that I was becoming fairly knowledgeable about a lot of things. About people's lives, about issues, about underlying structure of democracy, about American history, about ethics and politics and all that kind of stuff. You know, I was thinking about all those issues that a lot of people don't think about very seriously. Because of that and because of the paintings I suddenly found myself in the role of a teacher.”

But going into schools to talk directly to the kids, as Shetterly often does now, presents its own difficulties. Especially given his deep concerns about vital issues such as the state of democracy in our country:

“My view of where we are now is in a lot of respects very dark and heavy. So I find it very challenging to be in schools and make sure that the message I give to the kids, by the use of the people I’ve painted, isn’t overwhelming in its weight…. There are times in which I don’t really know what the right thing to do is. It’s hard. It’s very hard. I’ll be in a school tomorrow, talking to high school kids, and I want to be absolutely as honest I can be about what I really think…. I’m never quite sure how to approach some of these things so that kids feel the weight and also the inspiration to get engaged. What I want to leave people with is the feeling that there’s lots of room here and we need everybody, everybody, to engage in these issues.”

Shetterly seems in awe of his evolution toward education, modestly describing the turn of events as “fascinating” and “amazing.” But even having taken on his new teaching role, he is definitely still an artist.

Shetterly considers the success of his collection:

“I never lost my sense of what makes a good painting. To me what makes this whole project of mine work at all is the fact that I'm trying to make good paintings. Otherwise they wouldn't be traveling around and people wouldn't be looking at them and talking about them. Otherwise they'd just be placards, political art, but they aspire to be something more than that.”

He goes on to explain an especially important aspect:

“… I think it's the investment of time…. The point is I've clearly taken a lot of time to do something. I think in this age of people not wanting to spend time doing anything, they recognize that when somebody takes that kind of time it has a kind of authenticity that can be admired. At least I think that's part of it.”

Interestingly, although an established artist and published illustrator, Shetterly was not a portrait painter before he began the project. The new form brought new experiences:

“I've become a real finger-painter; I was using my hands a lot on my other painting, but never to the extent that I do on the portraits. One of the things that does is it makes the process incredibly intimate. You've got your hands what at times seems literally all over a person's face, in the corners of their nose and in their ears and shaping their eyes and in their lips. It's very intimate. You get to know a person through painting their portrait in ways that even the people most closely related to them don't know them.”

Shetterly said that people often ask him why he doesn’t paint “the bad guys, the liars.” In response, he explains:

“The best work is the work that you've invested your love into…. If I were to paint people I had no respect for or active dislike for, it would exhaust me.... It would be cynical and I'd be angry.”

Luckily, because this will keep him painting more portraits to inspire and educate, he has the opposite experience painting the truth-tellers:

“In the process of painting the portraits, they actually revive me. All the work that goes into them is constantly feeding me because they are such good people. And I feel so responsible to represent them correctly to the world.”

For more information, see the project’s website. It includes links to Shetterly’s portraits, curriculum suggestions, and more.

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