What does “Hopeful” mean?
Art that shines a light in dark times,
Between COVID-19 and Trump’s Big Lie, America is in serious trouble. Red versus Blue, Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, MAGA versus BLM. Americans are battling over everything from vaccines and mask mandates to voting rights, police violence, reproductive choice, and Supreme Court nominees.
Everyone seems to be in one camp or the other, and artists, being progressive and creative by nature, tend to back Democrats and liberal causes.
But as we consider how artists are responding “As Things Fall Apart,” I find myself increasingly drawn to artists who seek to transcend the categories, to bridge the ideological gap with a higher consciousness. To that end, I recently spoke with artists Charlie Hewitt, Rob Shetterly, Alan Magee, Lesley Dill, and Daniel Minter.
Charlie Hewitt of Yarmouth and Jersey City is well known in Maine and New York for expressionist abstractions that speak in a language of the working class—saws, hammers, nails, ropes, etc. But most recently, Hewitt has attracted a lot of attention with his “Hopeful” signs, parti-colored script illuminated in neon.
Hewitt’s “Hopeful” campaign began in 2019 with a sign atop Speedwell Projects in Portland and has since spread to Bangor, Brunswick, Lewiston, Yarmouth, Jersey City, Fairfield, and Newark in New Jersey, Greenwich, Connecticut, Easton, Maryland, and New York City, as well as to two dozen private collections.
Hewitt sees his “Hopeful” campaign as an upbeat, positive way to reach across the political divide.
“I’m tired of clutching my pearls and being shocked at what the other side does,” says Hewitt. “I’ve cast my net in kinder seas and the bounty is very rich.”
People all along the political spectrum can identify with the “Hopeful” sentiment and respond well to Hewitt’s message.
“Hopeful” is not entirely bipartisan, of course. Both Robert Indiana and Shepard Fairey, for instance, used the word HOPE in support of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. And one could, I suppose, be hopeful that no Republican ever wins again.
But Hewitt is convinced that he came up with the right word at the right time in the right place.
“‘Hopeful’ can only be incubated in a place like Maine,” says Hewitt. “We see each other. We rely on one another. We care about one another.”
Rob Shetterly of Brooksville has painted more than 250 portraits since he started his Americans Who Tell the Truth series (Art Seen, 22 September 2021) in 2002 in response to America’s impending invasion of Iraq. You’ll find a handful of Republicans (Dwight Eisenhower, Margaret Chase Smith) in the pantheon of truth-tellers, but most are heroes of the left—peace activists, civil rights leaders, environmentalists, whistleblowers.
Shetterly’s current focus is a forthcoming book of portraits of individuals who have worked on behalf of Earth Justice.
“Nothing substantive has been done about climate change,” says Shetterly. “If that’s not getting better, nothing is getting better.”
Shetterly uses Americans Who Tell the Truth to work with students all over the country. When it comes to issues of environmental destruction, he finds that young people understand all too well what the problems are and are deeply troubled by climate change. What they often don’t know is what they can do about it.
Shetterly’s gallery of Earth justice warriors ranges from national figures such as Aldo Leopold and Bill McKibben to local activists like retired Bowdoin College professor John Rensenbrink, co-founder of the Green Party, and state senator Chloe Maxmin, founder of the Climate Action Club.
“When students are aware of what people are doing,” says Shetterly, “they become inspired, empowered, hopeful.”
There’s that word again.
Alan Magee of Cushing became famous for his super-realist stones and still-life paintings of discrete objects such as firecrackers, auto parts, bones, and paint tubes. The dark side of Magee’s psyche emerged when he began creating disturbing monotype portraits of demonic figures and then damaged, doll-like sculptures inspired by war and violence.
Rob Shetterly describes himself and Alan Magee as “moralists,” but Magee senses a difference in their approach to art with social content.
“Rob is single-minded in attempting to bring about a decent world,” says Magee. “Trying to be honest is what I’m trying to do. We are both opposed to things that destroy life.”
There is a clear dichotomy in Magee’s work between the conventionally beautiful paintings and the distorted and deformed faces and figures. The former represents an ideal order and the latter an uglier social and political reality.
Recently, however, Magee seems to have found a way to marry the beautiful and the damned. His large-scale paintings of metal helmets reflect both a lifelong fascination with armor and the personal horror of war.
“In an issue of Harper’s many years ago,” Magee wrote of an exhibition of his new war helmet paintings last summer at Dowling Walsh Gallery in Rockland, “Lewis Lapham wrote that to understand the American reverence for our sophisticated war machines, we need to see them as our nation’s religious art. The helmets could be seen in the same way—not only as masterfully-made protections for the head, but as emblems of a system of beliefs.”
Magee describes the helmets as “the artistry of violence” and locates them “somewhere in the middle” between his stones and his monotypes.
When it comes to things falling apart, Magee is well aware that destructive forces have operated within most cultures throughout history. Still, he finds the dissension and division within contemporary American society upsetting.
“There is something new going on,” he says. “I never before felt there were neighbors or family I couldn’t talk to about some things.”
Perhaps that is why artists seek to subvert the taboo with a visual vocabulary of fine words, elegant portraits, beautiful paintings of the implements of war and, in the case of Lesley Dill, a visionary wardrobe of spiritual effigies.
Lesley Dill is a New York artist who grew up in Falmouth and graduated from Waynflete School in Portland. Her Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me (Art Seen, 12 February 2022) at the Bates College Museum of Art consists of more than a dozen eight-foot portraits of visionary Americans in the form of hanging costumes covered with the subject’s words. Three of the Americans featured are the same historical figures Rob Shetterly portrays—Sojourner Truth, John Brown, and Walt Whitman.
Dill’s Wilderness show edifies early American preachers, women, African-Americans, and Native Americans. More spiritual than political, her historical figures are nonetheless informed by current events.
Dill’s Sojourner Truth wears the brave, bold words, “Aren’t I a woman?” emblazoned on her blue dress, a telling query from a woman who was once forced to bare her breasts to answer that very question.
“My breasts have suckled many a white baby when they should have been sucklin’ my own,” Sojourner Truth yelled at a crowd of white men who questioned her gender. “Some of those white babies is now grown men, and even though they have suckled my Negro breasts, they are far more manly than any of you. I show my breasts to the whole congregation. It ain’t my shame but yours that I should do this. Here, then, see for yourselves!”
As President Biden prepares to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court, Lesley Dill’s evocation of Sojourner Truth celebrates how far women of color have come.
“These times are a time of celebration,” insists Dill. “I see Black Lives Matter parades right under my window. We are at the wonderful pivot point where we are moving away from white male patriarchy. Not fast enough, but it is happening.”
Daniel Minter of Portland is the co-founder of the Indigo Arts Alliance, which supports Black and Brown artists, and, with the deaths of David Driskell and Ashley Bryan, has become Maine’s best-known African-American artist.
Reflecting on police violence against Black people, conservative assaults on voting rights, and attacks on affirmative action, Minter has no doubt that racism has made a resurgence in recent years.
“Things are worse now because . . . ,” says Minter, searching for an analogy, “imagine we’re trying to move a great stone forward in progress. Before, the people who wanted to hold us back were being pushed aside by this great stone. Now, hordes of people are pushing back on the other side. That is worse. There is a shamelessness to it. The moral argument doesn’t work anymore.”
Minter’s art celebrates African-American culture and the history of injustice Black people have endured. His A Distant Holla, an altar-like structure that evoked his own history and that of African-American people everywhere, was the star of the 2018 Portland Museum of Art Biennial.
A more recent kindred piece, A Narrowing of Possibilities, is a wood, acrylic painted relief with carvings, fabric, etched copper, and a vintage drinking fountain. The dominant image is what appears to be the back of the late Rep. John Lewis’s head. The drinking fountain speaks to the era of segregation and images surrounding the head portray infamous acts of police violence against Black men.
A Narrowing of Possibilities is timely in that the US Senate recently failed to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Advancement Act. Daniel Minter sounds discouraged when he talks about the failures of American political will, but he is also resolute in defiance.
“We can do something about us,” Minter says. “We can make our personal selves better even in the face of climate catastrophe and disaster. Indigenous people and African-Americans have been doing that for a very long time—making ourselves better even though there seem to be insurmountable odds. Just look at last week: the voting rights bill failed. It’s almost unimaginable. A bill to increase the ability of people to vote failed. Yet it did.”
And so artists of conscience commit themselves to affirm the right, the good, the just, and, yes, the hopeful.
Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978. This article originally appeared in the Portland Phoenix on 16 March 2022.
Image at top: Charlie Hewitt with Hopeful.