An artist invokes the spirit of courageous Americans, past and present
Editor’s note: We asked painter Robert Shetterly to share part of a portrait collection and book he’s created called “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” In addition to eco-legends such as Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, Edward Abbey, and even Grist friend Bill McKibben, the artist profiles lesser-known activists who have shown us how to fight loud and proud, every day. See a selection of his portraits of inspiring environmentalists below.
Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong that will be imposed on them.
— Frederick Douglass
I began the series of portraits that I call “Americans Who Tell the Truth” as a simple effort at self-defense. Overwhelmed by grief and anger and shame at the United States’ decision to attack Iraq, I felt that I, as an artist, had to find a voice of protest in the thing that I do best — paint. I felt that this country’s people, soldiers, and ideals had been betrayed, and that the victims would include not only Iraq’s innocent people, but also the hopes of our children for a sustainable future. I thought that I could at least partially alleviate my shame if I could invoke the spirits of so many courageous Americans who have fought so hard for economic, social, and environmental justice.
My goal — which I never really thought I would reach — was to paint 50 portraits and then donate them, as a metaphor for the spirit of my subjects, to an institution that would exhibit the collection around the country. Now I’ve painted 100. My original plan was very much in line with the words of Utah Phillips, the great folk singer and storyteller of the labor movement: “The degree to which you resist injustice is the degree to which you are free.” I wanted to feel free. But the portraits have taken on a life of their own and sought their own meaning far beyond my attempt at personal dignity.
The exhibit is now traveling, in large and small groupings, all over the United States. A children’s book has been published featuring the first 50, and the project’s mission has become one of education and role modeling. We now have a curriculum, thanks to Michele Hemenway, a terrific educator from Louisville, Ky. It’s available free to teachers anywhere who want to teach our history through the lives of those citizens who have fought for our rights — civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, environmental rights, children’s rights, gay rights. It teaches that the real struggle in this country has been to close the gap between what we say as a country and what we do.
I am traveling too, and I spend more time talking in schools than painting, urging children to free themselves from the dangerous complacency taught by our commercial culture and to fight to save their own future. As Helen Keller said, “When one comes to think of it, there are no such things as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights. Rights are things we get when we are strong enough to make good our claim on them.”
Among the subjects I’ve painted, none are more important than those who have fought and are fighting to protect our environment. If we don’t do that, all other struggles are moot. We know that we can’t force nature to submit to our exploitative will, and that we must live in harmony with nature, or not at all. The only real question now is whether our species will be part of the Earth’s future.