Americans Who Tell the Truth | Portraits by Robert Shetterly |

I had the pleasure of recently attending a lecture, as part of a local college LVC’s “Happiness Colloquium“, on the themes of ‘Politics and Happiness’. This particular lecture featured the artist Robert Shetterly.

Robert studied literature at Harvard and subsequently concentrated more and more on the visual image. His lecture focused on the subject matter he’s been concentrating on in his current project, portraits of people whose actions of heroism have changed history, because they took the risk to tell the truth. Many are obscure, whose names have not been included in the text books and classrooms across America. What started with an intent of doing 50 portraits 10 years ago, has come to number 180 portraits and counting. He began by doing a lot of research, educating himself about his subjects and meeting those subjects who are still alive to hear their stories. He incorporates text on each painting, portraying the essence of what that person has stood for. Presently, he’s traveling with his portraits and talking about the subject matter that has influenced and captivated him. He is specifically introducing us to the people he has painted, educating the public about the stories of courage and acts of resistance that these people have demonstrated, which in turn have impacted the world around them.

After Robert’s disappointment with how the U.S. government responded to the attack on America on 9.11, he decided to channel his anger and frustration into something positive. He decided that much of the problems existing in the United States have to do with the fact that a Democracy can only legitimately function, when the public are informed. And it can only work when the politicians and the media (who should be the watch-dogs of the politicians’ actions) are telling the truth.

He decided to concentrate on those individuals throughout American history, who have been courageous in addressing issues they believed in, and have told the truth. Consequently, his series of portraits are of “Americans Who Tell the Truth”. Robert believes that by informing the public about these inspirational people, everyone can be empowered.

He spoke for example of Barbara Johns, a young black woman from Virginia in 1951 (4 years before Rosa Parks who got on the bus). Barbara was a student at an all black public school in a town where the whites and blacks went to separate schools. In her school some of the classrooms were abandoned school buses, whereas the school for the whites several blocks away was like a country club. Barbara wanted a good education and saw the injustice of the disparity in the conditions and quality of education. She wanted an equal opportunity – not just integrated – school. At the time, the adults were frightened of trying to change anything.

She called up the principal in a disguised voice, and arranged for him to go attend to some trouble outside of the school, then sent notes to each teacher – having forged the principal’s signature – to bring all of them and their students to an auditorium. There, with the superintendent absent, this 16 year old gave a speech to all of the teachers and students, expressing clearly the lack of equality in their education. Even though the ku klux klan started burning crosses and threatening their lives, the parents in fact also got behind the students and teachers. Her actions precipitated the first time an African American community staged a civil rights protest in the South, which lead to the case of integrating schools – “Brown vs. Board of Education”.

A contemporary woman Robert Shetterly was drawn to meet and portray, is a woman by the name of Lily Yeh. Originally from a prominent family in Taiwan, Lily came to the U.S. where she attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Fine Arts. Yeh helped create a national model of community building through the arts. In 2004, she pursued her work internationally, founding Barefoot Artists, Inc.

You can read about her biography in Projects for Public Spaces; which is what Lily Yeh did with her art over a period of years. “As a student, she was inspired by the writings of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and, later, Nelson Mandela. In 1989, she had been in Beijing showing her paintings at the Central Institute of Fine Arts when she witnessed the brave and tragic protests at Tiananmen Square. That experience convinced her that being an artist, “is not just about making art…It is about delivering the vision one is given…and about doing the right thing without sparing oneself.” She used her art and a vision to enhance a sense of place, empowering people in communities ravaged by conflict and poverty. She has also started Barefoot Artists using art and creativity to heal, empower and facilitate social change in poor communities all over the world.

Robert said that he has done portraits of only two American Presidents. One of them was Dwight Eisenhower, who made two excellent speeches, revealing his courage to stand up against the corruption that he saw. One was Eisenhower’s 1953 “Cross of Iron” speech, talking about the the cost of war. He expressed that war is a deplorable waste of resources and terrible waste of humanity. Here is the text of his “Cross of Iron” speech. and here it is on youtube

His other powerful speech in 1961, upon leaving the presidential office was his “Industrial Complex” speech. He talks about the influence of power and money concentrated in the hands of the few. Here is the text of Dwight David Eisenhower’s “Military-Industrial Complex” speech and here it is on youtube

Shetterly speaks candidly and articulately about his perceptions and understanding. He mentioned that people often feel forced to have to follow the expectations of the status quo, instead of living a life of investigating who they are. The person who has the courage to demand change, is the person who becomes the ‘teacher’. His traveling lectures specifically speak about the lives of these very special people whose courage has indelibly changed the history of America.

About carolkeiter
Aspiring writer, artist, musician and composer who was born and raised in the United States and has resided in several European countries. Communication is my forte; both through using various tools and in approaching people of divers backgrounds to gather information. Speak conversational - advanced intermediate - French, German and Spanish. Love interacting with people in cultural centers as much as going to remote places to learn more about the different creatures that share our planet. Love of the outdoors and of a variety of outdoor sports. Driven to learn and expand my own consciousness and understanding through curiosity and love of life. Creative skills merge with analytical ones, leading to an interest in a myriad of topics; ranging from politics, economics, science to environmental. Motivated to use my art, music and writing to support and educate people towards humane practices that support and respect all of life, including practices supporting a healthy planet.

One Response to Americans Who Tell the Truth | Portraits by Robert Shetterly |

  1. Pingback: Pursuit of Happiness | “the Happy Movie” | “My Stroke of Insight” | | digesthis

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