Virtue and the Ventriloquist

PROFILE-September 2009

by Rebecca Falzano
Photography Irvin Serrano

Artist Robert Shetterly paints the truth

Robert Shetterly, like most of us, can recall in vivid detail what he was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001: playing horseshoes on Mount Katahdin on a camping trip with friends. In the wake of the gut-wrenching news from a park ranger, the group swiftly disbanded and returned home to their families. Although the Brooksville artist felt something within him stir on the solemn ride home, he could not have predicted that this day would mark the beginning of an artistic sea change, nor did he have any way of knowing that the devastation and anger he felt would eventually give way to great optimism and pride.

At 63 years old, with fiery eyes and a warm smile, Shetterly’s handful of civil disobedience arrests might come as a surprise to those unacquainted with him. The truth is that his career as an artist is as long and varied as his history as an activist, and for decades his illustrations and paintings have been politically, morally, and ethically charged. Originally from Ohio, Shetterly has fought for a spectrum of causes—from civil rights to environmental issues—with particular focus on the antiwar movements against the conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. To this day, he engages in protests and sit-ins with an unwavering commitment to the moral imperatives and values he believes in.

A fully lived life is often marked by significant changes in direction, and Shetterly’s is no exception. After handing in his Vietnam draft card and earning his degree in English literature from Harvard University, he taught himself to draw and paint by copying postcards and photographs he collected during a trip to Europe. This unexpected shift from the written word to the image was the result of a sudden epiphany of self-awareness: “I found that I understood the world and myself better through images than through words,” he says. As Shetterly copied the images—gradually becoming better at it—something happened inside him: he felt as though he was set free. “It completely took me out of myself. I was an eye looking at the world with a pencil. I felt relieved of who I was,” he says.

After a year in West Virginia teaching schoolchildren in a poor Appalachia community, Shetterly settled in downeast Maine, where he felt at one with the land. He went on to illustrate for the Maine Times newspaper and Audubon Adventures before creating his well-known series Speaking Fire at Stones, as well as a collection of painted etchings based on William Blake’s Proverbs of Hell. His style has been characterized as poetic and surreal, and his half-human/half-animal creatures and mythological landscapes often border on the dark and macabre. His prowess with words is an added touch as he explores the relationship of text and image, often playing them off one another in his work.

Ironically, Shetterly’s most optimistic work came after 9/11. In the weeks following that day, Shetterly was devastated by the tragedy and strongly opposed to the war that followed. The impassioned protestor then did something surprising: he sat down and began to paint portraits of Americans he was proud of. “I knew in my heart that it would be self-destructive if I responded in a way that only expressed anger and cynicism. I had to channel my grief in a positive way,” he says. The idea came to him one day when he saw a quote from Walt Whitman on his studio wall. “The quote was about how to live in the world. I thought I might feel better if I painted Whitman’s portrait and scratched his words into it.” After hanging the painting in his hallway and watching the emotional reaction it elicited from everyone who saw it, Shetterly’s new mission became clear: he would paint fifty portraits, name the series Americans Who Tell the Truth, and then give it all away. “I felt, at that moment, freer than I’ve ever felt as an artist,” he says.

To deal with his grief after 9/11 and the war in Iraq that followed, Robert Shetterly (opposite) began painting portraits of Americans he admired.

shetterly_1_wShetterly painted a portrait of Samantha Smith, “America’s Youngest Ambassador” (top), a young girl from Maine who became famous in the Cold War era for writing a letter to the newly appointed Soviet Communist party general secretary and receiving a personal invitation to visit the Soviet Union, which she accepted. “Here was an 11-year-old girl teaching adults how to make peace. As soon as you show courage, you realize you can change your situation. If you’re afraid, all you can do is run away,” says Shetterly. Walt Whitman was the first portrait Shetterly painted (middle) and the start of his project Americans Who Tell the Truth. “The guiding principle was that if I started surrounding myself with people who make me feel really proud to be an American, I will feel better. And I did,” says the artist. Shetterly’s portrait of writer Erik Reece, who has been awarded for his environmental journalism (bottom), reads, “Our most modern sin is that we do not love the world enough. We have exiled the holy from this realm so we can turn its mountains into money.”

The next step was to decide whom to paint. Shetterly concentrated on Americans from the second half of the nineteenth century to the present—individuals who were integral in the fight for civil rights, labor rights, and environmental issues, to name a few. After Whitman, he painted icons such as Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, as well as contemporaries Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, and Wendell Berry. Above or below each portrait, Shetterly inscribed a quote from each person—again employing the power of words combined with images.

In 2005, the first fifty portraits were published in Americans Who Tell the Truth, and today, when he’s not painting more portraits, Shetterly spends much of his time traveling across the country to share his book with students and communities. “I want kids to understand that the only reason we have the freedoms, liberties, and justice system that we do is because of people who demanded it, who had the courage and persistence to fight for it,” he says. Because he is using the words of celebrated Americans, and not his own, Shetterly says he is given enormous latitude in the classroom. “If it were me saying some of the things that are on my portraits as quotes, I would never be allowed into a school. But these are their words; it’s like I’m a ventriloquist,” he says with a smile.

In his kitchen, eight years and 138 portraits later, Robert Shetterly is washing greens from his garden, a dog at his feet. The windows are open, and the clear sound of birds chirping in the trees makes it seem as though there are no walls between him and the forest outside. Inside his home filled with art, one can almost feel the collective weight of the truth tellers and their causes stacked in boxes in the basement ready for their next trip to a classroom.

In this moment, it is nearly impossible to imagine Shetterly as anything but enthusiastic about his project, but he admits to resisting it initially. “Portrait painting is something I never expected to do. I’ve spent thirty years developing a voice and a market and a reputation, and I was surviving on my art. To do what I’m doing now, I was going to have to give that up. If I was going to do something like this, it had to be for something with some social quality to it…something that was more important,” he explains.

A few years ago, on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, a selection of Shetterly’s portraits was on display in the foyer of a Bar Harbor pizzeria and cinema. After giving a talk in the theater, Shetterly was greeted by a mother who handed him a Post-it note from her seven-year-old daughter, who had just viewed the portraits. It read: “I’m so excited. He probably remembers everything that the children know.” For the artist, the weight of the child’s words brought clarity. This, he thought to himself, is what makes it worth it after all.

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