Artist Robert Shetterly on the Campbell Conversations

Jan 5, 2019

After 9/11, artist Robert Shetterly was inspried to begin a series of portraits he called "Americans Who Tell the Truth."  The collection grew to 238, and he's still painting them. This week, Grant Reeher talks with Shetterly about what motivates him, how he goes about painting his subjects and what the works have meant to him and to others.

Interview Highlights

Reeher: Let’s start with the beginning. Tell me how you started painting these portraits. What kind of painter were you up to that point? And was there something in particular that prompted you to start doing this?

Shetterly: Absolutely. I was not a portrait painter. I had never painted a portrait in my life. I was a surrealist, just about the opposite of what I’m doing now. If you told me I would paint didactic art in my earlier incarnation, I would’ve said, “never.” But, what happened was in the run-up of the Iraq war after 9/11, I was so aggrieved, you might say, full of what Terry Tempest Williams called “sacred rage” and also grief at all the victims there were going to be for a war that never should’ve been fought and that this country, especially this press, was allowing it to happen because they weren’t investigating the claims that were being made about weapons and Al-Qaeda and this and that in terms of Iraq. And I felt I either needed to leave this country or be a better citizen, and I needed to do it through the thing I do best, which is paint. And it took me months to figure out basically a very simple answer to what I should be doing, which was to take the energy of the anger and grief I was feeling and turn it to something positive. And that positive thing involved surrounding myself through portraiture of people that I felt were truth-tellers in this country and had done enormous work to try to make the United States live up to its own ideals.

Reeher: And 238 portraits is an enormous body of work. When you started painting these, did you ever intend for it to become such a large series?

Shetterly: No. The day I decided to do this, I made myself a little pledge that I would paint 50 portraits. I never actually thought I would paint 50 portraits. I thought I would paint five portraits, and then they would’ve been in my basement. It would have been a good therapy project for me, and it would be over with, and nobody would ever see them and I would go back to doing what I had done before. But after the first couple, I found that I was learning so much from delving into the lives of people like Frederick Douglas or Susan B. Anthony or Jane Adams, people I knew as names but not as lives. I was learning so much and also learning so much immediately about the nature of our history that it was fascinating to me, and then when I showed the first few, I was amazed by the response that I had. The people were moved. They were asking me to talk about it. I never expected that. … And I was so encouraged by the response and also by my own learning curve that I determined that I would paint at least those 50. And then, in about 2 ½ years, I had 50 portraits and I thought, “I’m just beginning.” And I just kept going. And I’m still going.

Reeher: I want to talk a little bit now about the effects these portraits have had on other people. And I’ve had the privilege in the past of seeing some of your portrait subjects talk about the experience of being chosen and then to be painted by you and seeing the painting and becoming a part of the collection. And it’s been very powerful for them to hear them speak about this. But I wanted to hear about the experience for you in painting them … Could you tell us more about how you actually paint these portraits?

Shetterly: Yes. I’m a self-taught painter. And when I decided to paint portraits, because I had never done it, I had to teach myself how to paint a portrait. I knew how to draw, and I knew how to paint because I’d taught myself to do that but never to do this kind of work. So, I looked at a lot of other people’s portraits just to kind of get a sense of technique, but then I knew, interestingly, in order to do these, I wanted it to be clear that this wasn’t, in a sense, about me. I didn’t want my style or stylistic idiosyncrasies to be in the front of it. What I wanted to do was honor the people I was painting, so I tried to choose a method of painting that was very direct, that was all about the person’s integrity reflected in the face and then the gaze of that person looking out of the painting at the viewer, trying to impress them with how important the issues that that person espoused were or are … The style I’ve developed involves building up layer after layer of thin paint – glazing, it’s called in painter’s talk – but I do it with my fingers. So, the process is almost like being sculptural because I’ve got my hands all over the person’s face. I’m putting on paint and then rubbing it to bring color through – because there’s a lot of underpainting – from underneath the painting. And it’s such an intimate way of dealing with the subjects.

Reeher: So, this is an impossible question, and I know that you probably hate being asked it and you’ve been asked it before, but I’m going to do it anyway. God forbid, let’s imagine that there’s a fire in your room where you store all these, and you’ve got the ability to run in and pull one out. So, which is the one out of the 238 that is so important to you that that’s the one you’d save?

Shetterly: Wow. I’ve never thought of it quite that way. That would be very tough. I don’t know. Maybe I would just grab the one I could grab. But there’s a painting that I almost always talk about when I begin a conversation with school kids because this now gets me in front of kids an awful lot, and that’s our focus, is getting in front of kids. I almost always begin a conversation talking about Sojourner Truth, the woman who was from New York. She was a slave. When slavery ended in 1827 New York, she was freed. And she was Isabelle then. She wasn’t Sojourner Truth. But each painting is not just a painting. It’s got a quote from that person scratched into the surface of the painting to give you a sense of why that person is looking at you. And Sojourner Truth’s quote says, “Now, I hear talkin’ about the Constitution and the rights of man, and I comes up and I takes hold of this Constitution. It’s mighty big, and I feels for my rights, but there ain’t any there. And then I says, ‘God, what ails this Constitution?’ And he says to me, ‘Sojourner, there is a little weasel in it.’” And to me, she has stated the problem exactly about the issue of this country having set the ideals it has had and then run away from them, I mean, people in power having run away from them. And that the chasing of that weasel has been the work of activists ever since the Constitution was written. And the forms that it takes are manifold, but that, to me, is essential in understanding the nature of power and then the nature of how important it was for those who were marginalized, like Sojourner Truth, then to do the work that makes the country honest, to bring us back into a situation where we’re walking our own talk.

Reeher: And is there a living subject that you’ve painted that the experience of painting him or her has stayed with you the most? Was there one experience of actually doing the painting and interacting with that person in that moment that is the most vivid memory that you carry with you?

Shetterly: I don’t know if I can answer that. I’ve painted now over 150 living people. Every one of them is a very intense experience. I choose the people. I’ve got this title, “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” It sounds a little presumptuous. But I choose the people. It’s very subjective, but then I choose them because I have such admiration for what they do. Boy, I don’t know if I could choose. I can’t. I can’t choose just one. I’m so impressed with all of them. And actually, for me, interacting and meeting with them and then I become almost a part of a mouthpiece, a megaphone, for their work. … All the people I paint who do this important activist work, most of them do not get invited into schools. Because this is an art project, often educators see this a little differently, that they invite me in because it’s art, and then I can speak for the person that’s not invited in. And it gives me an access, and it gives them an access that hasn’t been available otherwise.

Reeher: I’m a political scientist. I’m going to ask you sort of a political science question about these, and it has an imbedded potential criticism, so I’m curious to see how you’re going to react. I think it’s fair to say that the portraits as a whole, and focusing on the portraits of people that are still living, are mostly on the left – not exclusively, but mostly. Have you ever thought about trying to find more moderate and conservative voices who are telling the truth? Someone who’s been in the news recently that comes to mind, for example, might be Gen. Michael Hayden as a subject for your portrait. And have you gotten that criticism before?

Shetterly: I have gotten that criticism. And I don’t think of this. I’m not trying to wiggle out of something here.

Reeher: It’s been done on this show before.

Shetterly: Well, let’s put it this way. I don’t want to wiggle out of something. What I want to say is I don’t think of this in terms of who’s left and right. To me, human rights, justice, equality, those kinds of questions are not left and right questions. They’re human rights questions. They’re essential questions that if we want to actually have a democratic society, everybody has to care about those things because we can’t exclude some people to make some people more equal than others. Obviously, there’s great disparity between people’s innate talents and this and that, but they have to be treated equally. And what I see is that way too many people are accepting of a power dynamic that’s set up in our society where power is able to write the laws, to control the politics, to do this and that. That’s not good. It’s not good for them. It’s not good for the victims of it. But also, it destroys a democratic society. To me, this is not left and right. I just don’t accept that. If you look at the things that I’ve focused on over the years, which are civil rights, women’s rights, workers’ rights, children’s rights, environmental rights, I just don’t see them in those terms. Like today, saying that taking care of the environment is a left and right issue is wrong. It’s a question of facing reality and deciding whether you want to survive on the planet or not.

Reeher: Have you ever painted someone, and then their life took a turn, and you’re like, “Oh, wait a minute. Do I want this person under this banner?”? I wouldn’t ask you to name names, but have you ever had a painter’s remorse?

Shetterly: I’ve been saddened at times by things that have happened to people or that they’ve done after I’ve painted them or things I learned about that were previous to the painting that I didn’t know about. But something important here – it’s very important, actually – is every one of these people I paint is just like everybody else. They’re human beings with flaws, and that is actually the good news because what I don’t want to do is by painting this – and this is a danger – is to put people on a pedestal and say, “These are better than other people.” They’re not better than other people. They’ve had moments, often, of doubt, confusion, mistakes and then, a moment of courage where they actually stood for something. That’s what I’m asking for, is for all of us to when we find ourselves in a situation where something is being asked, that we meet that by doing the courageous thing, the morally courageous thing. I’ve painted people because of one action that they’ve done in their lives. They haven’t spent their lives being an activist. Some of the people have, but others have done one thing. And that has made all the difference. And if the rest of their life is a total wreck, that doesn’t concern me. I’m not judging those kinds of things. There’s someone like Barbara Johns, who, in 1951, she was a black girl going to a separate and very unequal school in Farmville, Virginia, who led a walkout of her school. And what she was demanding was not integration but separate but equal. She wanted a good education. … That case led to being one of the central cases of Brown v. The Board of Education. She was not an activist after that. … But the courage of her to demand from a white superintendent a separate and really equal school had such power in this society. Whatever else happened in her life doesn’t concern me at all except I’m interested.