Robert Shetterly is a visual artist, activist, writer, educator and speaker who lives in the woods on the coast of Maine. Schools, universities, churches, libraries, museums and various community groups around the country host his traveling exhibit and book of portraits, Americans Who Tell the Truth, a project which showcases hundreds of America’s most courageous humanitarians, educators, activists, environmentalists, peacemakers, freedom leaders and truth-tellers.
The following interview took place at Shetterly’s home studio in March 2012.
Interviewer: Do you feel like you’re invoking the spirit of your portrait subjects in some way?
Shetterly: Absolutely. Without getting new agey or sentimental about it, when I painted the first portrait in January 2002 and got the idea of doing this whole thing, there was a real sense of a spiritual, almost mystical significance to what I was doing. I was so angry at the way this country was being misled, with the administration lying to start another war, I was desperate to find a community of people to identify with so that I wasn’t absorbed in a community of people I intensely disliked and had no respect for. I wanted to surround myself with the spirits of people I admired, I wanted to feel good, I wanted to live in a country I didn’t feel ashamed of – live in a country that I had respect for.
The intent was actually to invoke the spirits of the people I was painting. I started with all these nineteen century figures, Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Susan B Anthony, people like that, and I indulged the idea that I could bring this army, if you will, of people back in some way, and that they would have an effect on the present.
People sometimes ask me, why do you paint these people, why don’t you paint the people who are lying and misrepresenting what this country really is, the enemies of this country who are in positions of power. The answer to that is, to make good art it has to be done from a feeling of love and intense compassion in some way, you can’t create from a place of anger and disrespect and feed yourself, after a while it drains you and destroys you. The energy of anger is really important, but to turn it in some way. If there’s injustice you’ve got to be angry, but you’ve got to use that anger in the service of love.
The process of painting every one of the portraits, whether they’re living or dead, becomes almost like falling in love. I have such respect and admiration for the people I paint, and I paint largely with my fingers, so I’ve got my hands all over the person’s face, I’m feeling their eyes and the shape of their skull, I’ve got my hands on their lips and in their ears. That’s the way I paint – is to thin and blend and create transparencies in the paint by manipulating it while it’s wet with my hands – it’s like sculpting. So there’s intense intimacy, both in the physical process and in the emotional and mental process. It’s deep in my understanding of who this person is: how much courage and energy they’ve expended in order to insist that this country live up to its own ideals. There’s a huge spiritual commitment, and also connection.
Interviewer: Can you talk about when you became conscious of and interested in social justice?
Shetterly: I got interested in social justice when I was in high school. I went to a little white high school in Cincinnati, and when I was a senior, my older brother who had graduated, myself, and a few other people, insisted that the school integrate. This was in 1964. My older brother had a big affect on changing my thinking about sense of social justice. In 1964 he went to Freedom Summer in Mississippi, over the objections of my parents and everybody else he knew. The need to register black people to vote in the South was not something a lot of people were even aware of in Ohio.
I grew up in a middle class family. We had black servants growing up, a cook, and a maid. It was always kind of odd, but nobody ever said anything. It was also not unlike a lot of the people around us who lived that way, white families with black servants. I was sensing something about what this meant, but without any framework of how to think about it. Then my brother went off to college and got involved with civil rights activity, and at the same time, I started reading people like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright, and thinking about American history and race and racism. The next thing that happened was I got deeply involved in anti-Vietnam work in college; I turned my draft card in.
So it began in high school with an awareness of history and race and thinking that I had to get involved in some way. Also, being successful in something, we got our school integrated in one year. It was interesting seeing the resistance, how many families didn’t like that happening, and then the opportunity it opened up for me to begin to understand myself as a player in history.
Interviewer: Do you feel part of a tradition of Maine artists involved in working towards an equitable society?
Shetterly: The tradition of social justice art in Maine is not broad or deep, but it has some spectacular people in it, like Rockwell Kent, who spent a lot of time living on Monhegan. He was probably one of the most political artists in American history, but he was never a model for me.
The tradition that particularly interests me is the Union of Maine Visual Artists, which I’m now the head of. It has an almost forty year history of political activism in Maine, which started in 1975 with Carlo Pittore as the head of it. Through that, I met Natasha Mayers, whom I have painted a portrait of, who’s been one of Maine’s most active and prominent social justice artists for thirty plus years. Because of her I’ve been spurred to want to do more myself.
There are other people in that movement now, people like Abbie Shawn, Kenny Cole, and organizations like the Beehive Collective, which are fantastic, the work they do, the quality of it, and the places they go to talk about various systemic problems in our society. I think the tradition of progressive artists in Maine is building right now more than it ever has, and that’s interesting to me.
Interviewer: Could you talk about your involvement in protesting the removal of the Maine labor mural?
Shetterly: Here we had this mural in the Department of Labor, which was artist speak, it wasn’t government speak, and it was telling a very mild and simple truth about labor history. It was in the Department of Labor, it was not in the Department of Business – but it should have been – and there was nothing about it that was not true about Maine labor history. It told the story of strikes, of organizing child labor, women, voting – straight ahead things that were true.
That the governor would take it down because he thought it was unfair or cast the business community in a bad light – American labor history does cast the business community in a bad light, that’s the only light you can see it in, how the business community has tried to exploit labor and to what extent they’ve actually harmed people by doing that. Then of course the story of how laborers organized to fight back to get better working conditions, better pay, end child labor – it’s all true, it’s there in history, it’s not somebody’s political spin. So it seemed as an artist and as a citizen the necessary thing to do was to oppose what the governor was doing and insist that the mural be put back.
The judge says your remedy is the ballot box, vote this guy out of office next time. That’s true, but that’s not good enough. You really need to confront the issue head on for what it is and get that issue taken care of, not just make it one of a lot of different things that most people probably won’t even remember at the next election.
Interviewer: How does Maine as a place inspire and impact your work?
Shetterly: Hugely, although you wouldn’t necessarily see it. I love living in Maine, I get from the environment in Maine a sense of unconditional love. I’ve lived here forty-one years now; it’s a huge part of my identity. I’ve never tried to paint the landscape, I feel it would be redundant, it’s there, it’s so beautiful, I like being in it. My work has always been about something else, but without it, I don’t know who I’d be.
I travel all over the country speaking, but I spend more time in Maine schools than anywhere, and interestingly enough, I get invited to a lot of rural schools, places that I would have thought might be nervous about my politics and some of the things that I’m doing. I get to go to places in northern Maine and western Maine. These portraits have been embraced by lots of different kinds of groups in the state – libraries, museums, and especially schools – so I like having a communal base that I feel part of. The fact that Maine has done so much to embrace what I’m doing makes me feel really good.
Interviewer: What made you decide to use gender equality in the paintings of Americans Who Tell the Truth?
Shetterly: How could I not. You look at gender equality in this country’s social justice history and there have always been as many significant women as men. So to be honest about it is to paint it the way it is, but it’s also been very important to me.
Women have been so much left out of American social history, even when they’ve been prominent, they’re not in the books. I painted César Chávez, then I start getting letters from San Antonio, Texas saying why didn’t you paint Emma Tenayuca, and I’d never heard of Emma Tenayuca. Why hadn’t I heard of Emma Tenayuca? Why haven’t you heard of Emma Tenayuca? Twenty years before César Chávez, here was this teenage girl leading strikes during the Depression and winning them in Texas for Tejanos – for Mexican-American workers. It’s just amazing her courage and what she was doing in a very tough time. So considering all the labor people that one could paint, I paint her then, because what an important story. To me it’s about all of us. I take as much inspiration from women as from men, and a lot of my contemporary heroes are women; they’re often the people whose courage I want to emulate myself in some way.
Interviewer: Your art has been more for public benefit than profit. Has that freed you up as an artist?
Shetterly: That’s very important. The very first moment that I had this epiphany that I would paint this project, in a conversation with my partner Gail, I determined three things: I’m going to paint fifty portraits – and I’d never painted a portrait – and I’m going to call them Americans Who Tell the Truth – I didn’t realize at the time what that meant, but that was the title, it was just like neon, and third, I was going to give it away.
I realized there would be something wrong with me painting these figures in order to sell them, to make profit from people whom I was painting because I admired their selflessness, how much they had given without ever getting back. Their object was not money, but to make the country richer by having more freedom and equality. So I understood immediately that I would never sell the paintings, I would give them away. When I decided that, it was like I levitated.
No matter what you do in the art world, if you’re trying to sell your work there’s something commercial about it, even though we try to divide: it’s not about money, it is about money. I’d been an artist who painted very much what I wanted to and insisted that if I’m going to have to be in a market, the market would do it on my terms, I would not compromise my images in order to sell them, and I survived. I was making a living and supporting the family on selling paintings, but as soon as I decided that I would do art to give away, I felt totally free. I thought, now I can say everything I want to say, just straight ahead, put it out there.
I’m now making didactic art in a sense. I never thought I would make didactic art. That seems anathema to me as an artist. I like messages in pictures, but mysterious, ambiguous, often embedded in some way in the art. People have to dig around and find it for themselves from their own experience and imagination.
None of us chooses when we live. We have to deal with the realities of the moment and how to confront them. This project became a way that I could deal with the realities of my time in a way that made me feel good, and in order for it to be totally free it had to be not about money.
I make money because of this, I get paid to talk now, but I don’t sell the paintings, and it’s an entirely different thing. People come to me to have me speak because I’m free to say exactly what I think needs to be said. I don’t have to pull any punches. So many people in our society feel constrained in one way or another, and I don’t feel that anymore.
Interviewer: You were tried and acquitted for protesting Bush’s plan to increase troops in Iraq; what was it like being one of the Bangor Six?
Shetterly: That was thrilling. It was a terrific group of people I was with who had been arrested for sitting in at Senator Collins’ office. We owe a lot of that trial to the decision of the judge to let us argue international and constitutional law. In other words, to argue why we were doing the action, not whether we were guilty of trespassing or not, because most times when you commit any kind of civil disobedience they nail you on the action itself. Were you in that office sitting-in that day and were you ordered to leave and did you not leave? Then they have the police and everybody verify that in fact that’s what happened and you have no chance to argue why you were there, what motivated you.
The judge allowed us to argue in front of a jury why we were there, and as soon as you present the evidence about what you’re protesting – that the propaganda of our government was in contradiction to our own constitution, to the Geneva Conventions, the Nuremberg principles, to all these things that are our own law – the jury was unanimous in a few minutes. It’s so obvious, that we had a necessity to be there was greater than the issue of trespassing, and that we had the right to be there because of that overriding moral-legal concern.
The judge in this case not only allowed us to argue in defense of the trespassing issue, the state had to argue against our philosophy and our reason for being there. It was a terrific case, and each one of us was able to talk articulately about the issues. One of the jurors came up to us after and said, I learned more in two days in this courtroom than I learned in four years in college. That’s the good thing. The bad thing is, it didn’t change anything, except us maybe. In other cases similar to it around the country, judges didn’t start changing what they allowed people to argue, just the opposite, they didn’t allow it. That’s why that’s not allowed, because if juries could hear why people were doing these things, they would acquit them, and then it would become part of the news, other people would understand, it would be a way to explain why these laws need to be broken, because there’s a higher law.
Interviewer: I read a Common Dreams article where they were implying that the case set a precedent for Maine and could it be an example for people around the country, but you’re saying, maybe it’s the exception?
Shetterly: It’s the exception. There’s that moment when you think, this is going to make a difference. No, what makes a difference are things like Occupy Wall Street where people persist. It’s not just one moment, one case, they stay in the streets, people get arrested, they stay in the streets. That’s what it takes. To the extent that my project is a metaphor of that, I started this over ten years ago now, I thought it would last for a couple of years and then I would go either backwards or forwards in my career to do something else. Instead it’s become bigger and deeper and more consuming and more thrilling and taken me places I never would have dreamed of; it’s the persistence.
Interviewer: How do you keep your spirits up and maintain resolve?
Shetterly: I feed a lot on other people’s commitment and courage. One of the people I’m going to paint soon is Lois Gibbs. In the late seventies in Niagara, New York, Gibbs led the fight against the chemical dump called Love Canal, where a school and all these developments had been built on top of this unbelievably toxic chemical dump. The company, Hooker Chemical, had sold the land to the town for one dollar, just to get rid of it; the town had to sign a statement saying that they would never prosecute or question anything that was in it. So the town should have known what they were getting into. Hundreds of people got sick, died, genetic problems, birth defects, miscarriages, cancers. Gibbs led this struggle in having the state and the federal government pay to relocate about eight hundred families because their real estate became worthless and they were all sick. She is an incredibly courageous person. Her work led to the Superfund law and trying to clean up toxic dumps around the country, and she still does this stuff. Our history is full of stories like this.
To have time to be consumed in doing the physical painting, and honoring the person by doing that, that really keeps my spirits up too. Also, being in a classroom with young kids and telling them history they don’t know keeps my spirits up.
The only thing that doesn’t keep my spirits up is staying informed with the deep news about what’s going on, say, in the environment at this moment. We’ve almost killed the ocean, from the lowest to the biggest in terms of what supports life on this planet. What does this mean? That’s the heaviest part, the constant need to know the truth, not just what you want to know, or like to believe, or see things as improving, but to know what’s really happening.
Interviewer: It feels like you’ve put forth a manifesto of truth tellers. It must be empowering to be connected with this network of heroes?
Shetterly: It is. About the only way that our economic and social culture can continue the way it is, is in a state of denial of the effects that it’s causing. One can choose to live in that denial as though that music is going to keep playing, or you can move the curtain away and find out what’s really going on behind there and where it’s leading.
To be with people like that who have made the decision to either know or try to know the truth about what’s really happening is exciting. One of the aspects of why I call this Americans Who Tell the Truth is about that issue. Unless you face the truth of what the problem is, you can’t fix it. We’re a country that pretends we can reform and treat symptoms and go on doing that forever and everything will be okay. If we don’t treat the causes, finally the causes will overwhelm us, as they are now. Whether it’s as we were just talking about, the oceans, or the economy, or anything else, we’re not treating the cause.
James Baldwin said people who close their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction. We’ve been inviting our own destruction for many years now, but pretending we’re doing a great service to the world by being a paragon of both democracy and capitalism, as though they’re the same thing. That untruth, which is part of the American myth of power and exceptionalism, is incredibly dangerous. To be around people who understand the danger of that myth and also how hard it is to eradicate it is a good feeling.
I was at a program two weeks ago in Washington DC with Ralph Nader, and a group of people I painted all came together at Washington College of Law to talk about law and ethics and integrity in America. They were all people I painted. It was a dream come true, except I never could have dreamed it [laughs]. Nader was talking about the idea of truth telling, and he said what we’re talking about is people who are naming reality, it’s not like truth is a slippery amorphous subjective thing, we’re talking about realities here. It’s not like, who’s your god and where does he or she or it live in the cosmos, it’s not those kind of amorphous belief systems, we’re talking about truths, realities, not beliefs.
Interviewer: Do you see the mediums of words and visual art affecting people in different ways?
Shetterly: It’s very gratifying to get the kind of feedback I get from people who have been moved by either the words or the images or both, which makes me just want to do more.
Every one of us becomes a potential extender of somebody else’s reality. If I painted the portraits and had them in my basement and nobody ever asked to show them, nothing would have happened, there wouldn’t be the Americans Who Tell the Truth book, nothing. It’s because other people get moved by the paintings, and say, I want to bring this to an audience somewhere, I want to get you in a classroom to talk to children, I want to bring you to a library to talk to adults. Every person who makes a decision like that is just as important as I am in terms of the reality of what I do. Then being able to extend the reality of the people I paint and use their words to make the further inspiration to not just be moved, but to act.
There’s a school in Louisville, Kentucky where a fifth grade class has been using the portraits for several years now. These were kids at a poor school from all kinds of the usual social problems, drugs, broken families, crime, everything, a lot of kids angry, learning disabilities, not able to focus. So we use Americans Who Tell the Truth to show them people who came from backgrounds similar to theirs, who used all that disaffected energy and anger to do something good, rather than to do something bad. These kids were encouraged to then go out into their neighborhoods and identify things they would like to change: the housing, no place to play, the treatment of animals, the dumps in their backyards and neighborhoods. Then they wrote reports on it, took pictures, described how they would like it changed. Then the school invited the mayor’s office to come in and listen to these kids talk about what was wrong in their neighborhoods and how they wanted it fixed, and the mayor’s office started fixing those problems. They took all the kids posters and drawings and photographs and started actually working on the problems.
That to me is about the most exciting thing I can possibly think of coming out of what I’m doing, it leads to a shift in energy, from a lot of negative energy to positive energy, to actual transformation of people’s lives.
It’s possible, it can happen with kids. I say to kids all the time, don’t wait for adults to fix these problems that they’ve caused, they’re not going to do it necessarily, you’ve got to do it and you can do it, you are unbelievably more powerful than you understand, if you’re willing to start struggling to bring attention to what the problems are and insisting that things change. I’ve tried to paint more and more young people, to make examples of how a young person can cause significant social change.
Interviewer: Could you talk about working collaboratively with other artists and writers?
Shetterly: I love working collaboratively. I’ve been involved with Bring Our War Dollars Home and making posters and stuff about that issue of where our money’s being spent for years.
I’ve particularly liked being involved with writers, either being inspired by them to illustrate or collaborate in a sense, or being a source of inspiration. There’s a book of my drawings and etchings with poems written to them. People think that I illustrated Bill Carpenter’s poems but it was the other way around, he wrote poems in response to my pictures.
I spent three years making and then painting seventy etchings in response to William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. It totally consumed me for a while. Blake was one of my favorites in college and I never felt that I quite understood some of the things that he was saying, but when I started to make pictures in response to his proverbs I began to feel I could understand what he was talking about, sometimes even disagree with him, I was getting that close to it. That’s the way I often make art is to try and understand an issue, something will be bothering me and I don’t know what it is until I can make a picture. That’s where I get a lot of my clarity is the image.
We are taught in this society to be competitive and to want to stand separate and alone and better all the time than other people. Our whole educational system and work system and everything else is often set up in terms of competition. The more we collaborate instead of compete, the happier we are, the better results we get, the more fun it is, and the much more ultimately satisfying it is and also good for our communities.
I think it’s very important to delve into your own psyche and make your own statements and know who you are through that process, but also to be collaborating at the same time only enables you to go deeper into yourself, not further away from it. It’s not like you become homogenous by collaborating with other people. If you’re conscious and introspective you’re going to use those collaborations to ask yourself a whole new set of questions about who you are and what you’re doing and what you believe in, so both things happen at the same time, but they happen best in a non-competitive framework.
If there is going to be any hope in solving a lot of social justice issues, we have to do a lot more coalition building. So much of the activist community is often split idiotically around ideological points of view, which are so narrow compared to the issue or the enemy against which we’re supposedly aligned, and we magnify those little differences so that we don’t fight together, we fight each other. It’s crazy, and it totally hamstrings the movement often.
Interviewer: Could you share a vision for the future?
Shetterly: Probably a lot of it is going to be very difficult, because it’s going to involve decommissioning what we call civilization today, which is built on a paradigm that’s unsustainable. If we’re going to continue to live as a species in collaboration with other species on this planet and survive in any kind of healthy way, we have to completely change the systems by which we’re living. So my vision of the future is the process by which that would happen, and my guess is that when you look at the intransigence of the kind of systems and who profits by them now, it won’t be an easy transition.
What I find thrilling is what’s being done in communities, everywhere in the world, not just around here. Communities of people are trying to take charge of what happens to them in terms of those major systems – education, housing, transportation, food production, energy – in order to live in a more sustainable fashion. People understand, and everywhere communities are springing up to try and tackle those questions of how are we going to live in a way that actually reflects the reality of being one species on this earth? Are we going to learn to live in harmony with our own reality, which means, supporting the health of every other species on earth, plant and animal, not just our own, and not using them for profit?
What’s difficult is that much of the world is so intimately and complexly and complicity tied in with these systems which are causing the death of the world, that it’s so hard to disengage and find a healthy way back, or forward, to a different relationship with the earth, but that’s what’s required.
So my vision is of a people, many of whom have to be a whole lot smarter than I am and with a lot more energy, willing to figure out how to do that. The important thing is the spirit with which it be done with, it’s got to be done with excitement, with joy of bringing hope to young people about a different way to live that will ultimately make them more healthy. They’ll have less stuff, but they’ll be a lot happier and healthier.
Joy has got to be part of that picture. Not just a bunch of rats living in rubble of a collapsed civilization, we’ve got to find a way to celebrate the success of every species collaborating together to live in a healthy planet. I don’t know if that will happen, all I can say is that’s my vision [laughs].
I have a grandson, I want a future for him as I want a future for every child, and seven generations of unborn children. What a shame that we’re wasting so much. There’s such delight, such beauty.
Nature is the only law that we know of for sure. Nature’s laws determine everything that happens on the earth, not us, nature. The big transgression in the Garden of Eden, which is the earth, was when nature was saying, you have to live by nature’s law, and if you don’t live by nature’s law, you’re going to be very unhappy. The original sin was to separate ourselves from nature: saying that we’re not the same as all the other species and our health is not determined by the health of other species, our health is going to be determined by how much profit we can make by exploiting the other species and their resources. That was the sin, and it wasn’t god’s law, it was nature’s law. Don’t call it god, just call it nature, it was nature’s law which said you can’t do that, and that’s what we did, and that is what we’re paying for so deeply.
That’s why I’m painting Aldo Leopold right now, he understood. He grew up in Iowa with his grandfather, and his father took him out all the time to hunt. He got to understand nature like a Native American. All the animals and plants and the signs and everything, he could read nature. Then he went to forestry school and he learned to see nature as a product, walk into the woods and you see board feet; and then he also learned that predatory species like wolves are bad, they’re like rats, they’re like varmints, you need to kill those so we have more deer for people to use up. So one day he’s with a bunch of other guys working for the forest service and they’re shooting wolves, and they shot a she-wolf with a bunch of cubs, and he went over to them after, and the cubs were dead and the female was still alive but dying, and he said he watched the fierce green fire go out in her eyes, and he said it was years before he realized that that light in her eyes which was dying was the thing that was going to save us, that that light was much wiser than he was, and that that’s what he had to protect, not the fucking deer, it was the light of wildness.
Everything we organize, whether it’s our environmental policies, our banking policies, our pollution policies, have to be thought of in that same way we would define a biological web. Everything is responsible to everything else, and when you write a set of laws that say the only obligation of a corporation is to make profit for its stockholders, you’ve tried to slice off that corporation’s responsibility to all the other economic things in the world, environmental and physical and everything else. Nothing can operate independently, and when you start to make those distinctions and say one thing’s separate from another, that the only obligation is profit, it’s absolutely crazy. That’s what we’re living with, that craziness.
Look up Oren Lyons on my website, he’s the Native American who’s the faith keeper of the Onondaga. I had a wonderful conversation with him when I went to paint him, we talked about this very issue, and he said, “we, Native Americans,” whenever he said that it was like it was two hundred years ago, he said, “when we saw you sign your constitution and separate church and state, we knew it would only lead to disaster.” I thought, what are you talking about, that’s one of the most important things about the constitution, and he said no, you don’t get what I mean, he said you’re ultimate reality has to be your deepest spirituality. Your ultimate reality is nature, so your deepest spirituality has to be tied to your reality, and that is your church, and when you separate your political and economic institutions from the responsibility to that reality, to nature, as though they’re separate, it will only lead to disaster, and you separated your institutions from your most important church, which is nature – disaster. I thought, what a great way to think about that.
So that’s the thing, I meet these people and I learn so much, reading their books, talking to them, understanding the way they think, and then I just become this medium for spreading other people’s courage and words and actions.
To learn more about Robert Shetterly and the Americans Who Tell the Truth project, please visit : http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org