The Americans Who Tell the Truth project began with art. Part of the reason for that is obvious: I am an artist. And I choose art because it enables me to communicate most profoundly and honestly. When I say communicate, however, I don’t mean that my first concern is communicating with other people. Art allows me to communicate with myself. I paint an image; the image then speaks back to me, informs me of ideas and concerns beyond what I knew I had. The painting becomes a tangible fact in the world whose reality tells its own story. If it tells that story to me, I’m confident it will speak to others.
In the run-up to the Iraq War when I was convinced that many political, military and media figures were lying about the reasons for war, I decided to surround myself with Americans whom I trusted and respected, Americans who had struggled to uphold our fundamental ideals. Truth tellers. I could have written down their names in a notebook. I could have thumbtacked photos of them to a wall. But neither of those acts would have engaged me in a creative process of respect and recognition the way painting a portrait does. Neither would have required prolonged effort, the kind of effort which committed me to do something about this criminal war. To paint a good portrait one must concentrate hard for many days to fully honor the subject of the portrait, to discover a likeness which not only looks like the person, but speaks like the person, radiates something essential about that person, from that unique person. Art requires an investment of critical and loving energy. If that energy is well used, the portrait will speak with critical and loving energy. Other people will feel it. This process is one of the deep mysteries of art making. Done well, a portrait evokes the presence of a person as no other medium can.
I did not want to feel totally alienated from my own country as the patriotic fervor grew for war. Among my gradually increasing collection of portraits, I found a community, a seemingly living community, where I felt consoled and empowered. I felt at home. Art can do that, bring you home.
Good art takes time. No matter how urgent the issues may be, the most lasting communication will be the most artful, art that strives for beauty and meaning and is willing to take the time to discover them. It was my determination that slowly building a community, portrait by portrait, of Americans who have fought for racial, economic, social and environmental justice would be the most persuasive and educationally useful thing I could do. Their power may be their invitation to a moment of contemplation, the permission they give viewers to stop and think, to agree or disagree, at the same time requiring that they acknowledge the humanity of the person represented before them. If the art can embody the truth of the person, the viewer may be willing to consider the truth of the subject’s words.
The contemplation, the permission, the humanity are all enhanced by the attempt to make real art. Having high standards for our art making shows that we respect the subjects, the viewers and ourselves.
We live in a time of historical and environmental urgency. We are besieged by a cacophony of propaganda, spin, and special interest voices. Most of those voices are purposeful, cheap distractions from the important issues and from the activist work we should be doing. The art of the portraits tries to call us back to essential issues and values, at the same time providing us with models of vision, courage, compassion and citizenship. This art does not insist that you agree with everything it says; it wants you, though, to look it in the eye, to know that what you see is an honest encounter with a real person with real courage working to close the gap between what we say about the common good and what we do. The portraits aspire to be a community of trust. You may disagree with some, but you can trust their intentions. And, in a sense, you could say that all of them are really one portrait, an historical portrait of a country struggling to live up to itself, to discover itself, to become its own dream. A portrait of the dignity of that ambition. Good art carries that burden.
Here are my answers to some questions I’ve been asked about the AWTT project:
Do you consider yourself more an activist? More a painter? More an historian? Why?
If I consider myself more of a painter, I feel guilty for not being more of an activist. I have to believe that the art is the activism. And it is. I have come to love the history that surrounds the portraits, but I’m not a historian. I don’t know enough to call myself that. But I am a storyteller about history and how the lives of my subjects have affected history.
What have you learned about yourself with this project over the last 18 years?
I have learned about myself that I can mirror with the art the determination of many of the people I paint. I have learned how much I love learning, I love discovering what I have got wrong so I can learn more. I’ve learned that I prefer love and expressing love no matter how justified my rage may seem.
How have you grown as a painter? What do you think you can do/see as a painter now that you couldn’t before?
Hopefully, after nearly 250 portraits, my skills have improved. Counterintuitively, as I have improved as a portraitist, I think I’ve become more humble as an artist. I’m one guy trying to do one thing well. I don’t know if it really matters at all, but I can’t think of what I could do that would make me feel any more sure, any more engaged. Living in that doubt spurs me to try to make each portrait better than the last. If I were to give up painting the portraits to, say, work full time for 350.org, who would paint the portraits? I think of what Paul Robeson said, the quote I scratched into his portrait:
“The talents of an artist, small or great, are God given. They’ve nothing to do with him as a private person; they’re nothing to be proud of. They’re just a sacred trust… Having been given, I must give. Man shall not live by bread alone, and what the farmer does I must do. I must feed the people—with my songs.”
I don’t know if the portraits are ‘a sacred trust,’ but they are my sacred trust. I have a passion and a skill. Perhaps those two things are the only means I have to take full responsibility for my privilege.