AMERICANS WHO TELL THE TRUTH: The Paintings of Robert Shetterly

September 11, 2010 to October 23, 2010

“The rule of law does not do away with the unequal distribution of wealth and power, but reinforces that inequality with the authority of law. It allocates wealth and poverty in such calculated and indirect ways as to leave the victim bewildered.”

Howard Zinn – Historian, Political Theorist, Educator, 1922 – 2010






Artist’s Statement

robert shetterly photoThe second strong feeling — the first being horror — I had on September 11, 2001 was hope, hope that the United States would use the shock of this tragedy to reassess our economic, environmental, and military strategies in relation to the other countries and peoples of the world. Many people hoped for the same thing — not to validate terrorism, but to admit that the arrogance and appetite of the U.S., all of us, have created so much bad feeling in many parts of the world that terrorism is inevitable.

I no longer feel hopeful. If one looks closely at U.S. foreign policy, the common denominator is energy, oil in particular. The world is running out of oil. Political leadership that had respect for the future of the Earth and a decent concern for the lives of American and non-American people would be leading us away from conflict toward conservation and economic justice, toward alternative energy, toward a plan for the survival of the world that benefits everyone. We see hegemony and greed thinly veiled behind patriotism and security. We get pre-emptive war instead of pre-emptive planning for a sustainable future.

The greatness of our country is being tested and will be measured not by its military might but by its restraint, compassion, and wisdom. De Toqueville said, “America is great because it is good. When it ceases to be good, it will cease to be great.” A democracy, whose leaders and media do not try to tell the people the truth, is a democracy in name only. If the consent of voters is gained through fear and lies, America is neither good nor great. Nor is it America.

I began painting this series of portraits — finding great Americans who spoke the truth and combining their images with their words — nearly three years ago as a way of to channel my anger and grief. In the process my respect and love for these people and their courage helped to transform that anger into hope and pride and allowed me to draw strength from this community of truth tellers, finding in them the courage, honesty, tolerance, generosity, wisdom and compassion that have made our country strong. One lesson that can be learned from all of these Americans is that the greatness of our country frequently depends not on the letter of the law, but the insistence of a single person that we adhere to the spirit of the law.

My original goal was to paint fifty portraits. I’ve now gone beyond that and have decided to paint several more. The more I’ve learned about American history — past and present — the more people I’ve discovered whom I want to honor in this way. The paintings will not be for sale. They will stay together as a group.  The courage of these individuals needs to remain a part of a great tradition, a united effort in respect for the truth. Eventually, I will give the portraits to one museum or library on the condition that they continue to be shown. These people form the well from which we must draw our future.

Robert Shetterly

ArtRage chose 28 portraits from the 150 in the artist’s collection at the time.  This exhibit encouraged a dialogue that helped each of us figure out which truths we value most as citizens in a threatened democracy. The portraits included in this exhibit were: Molly Ivins, Marion Wright Edelman, Winona La Duke, Sue Coe, Pat Humphries, Sandy O, Emma Goldman, Ida B. Wells, Helen Keller, Ann Wright, Murphy Davis, Joanna Macy, Kathy Kelly, Lateefah Simon, Emma Tenayuca, Howard Zinn, Mark Twain, Noam Chomsky, Pete Seeger, Dr. Paul Farmer, Roy Bourgeois, Muhammad Ali, Harry Hay, James Bell, Edward Said, Eugene Debs, LaAlan Jones and David Korten.

Carol & Jerry Berrigan, Susan Jacoby & Janet Nicholas, Shirley & Larry Novak, Lleni Pach and Marie Rothbaler!