My times with Robert “Rob” Shetterly began 21 years ago when he arrived at my editing studio with an armful of videos of Robert Hamilton, a painter of great imagination and invention who was living in Port Clyde. Rob’s visit that day resulted in our making the documentary film, Robert Hamilton: Maine Master, and it’s still among my favorites. “The reason I came to Maine,” Hamilton said, “was very simple. One, it never got too hot to work. Two, you could park anywhere.” I never had so much fun learning, living, and laughing as I did when making that film with Rob.
Since then, I have continued making films in this ongoing series, Maine Masters, celebrating the lives and works of Maine artists. It’s a series which Rob Shetterly has encouraged from the start through his involvement with our sponsor, the Union of Maine Visual Artists (UMVA). To date, we have made 18 films, commemorating 18 exceptional Maine artists.
Now two decades later, I am making the most important film of my 45-year career, called Truth Tellers, about Robert Shetterly himself and his latest extraordinary project: 252 portraits to date, collectively entitled, Americans Who Tell the Truth.
Rob Shetterly and Americans Who Tell the Truth
The portraits in Rob’s series honor some of the many Americans, past and present, who have stood up to confront difficult and often risky topics. Onto each portrait, Rob scratches a quotation by that person. Taken together these creations speak to Rob’s philosophy of democracy. Through Americans Who Tell the Truth, this artist is creating what he believes is the essence and future of American democracy.
Born in 1946 in Cincinnati, Rob became, in high school, an all-star football player. He worked to help integrate that high school. And succeeded! For the film, we interviewed Rob’s son Aran, who observed, “Art for Dad is a bit of a full-contact sport, and he intends it to pack a punch.” Aran continued, “He was a feared linebacker who liked to hit people very hard. And I’ve always felt that, in art, he found an outlet for that energy.” Both the portraits and the accompanying quotations really do pack a punch.
After college Rob moved to Maine. “I spent my time living off the grid,” he wrote, “raising a family, building a house, gardening, cutting wood, digging clams, teaching myself how to draw and paint. Took about five years to get competent enough to begin being professional—i.e., doing illustrations of plants and animals, working for Farmstead Magazine.”
He later gained recognition for 12 years of editorial-page drawings for the Maine Times weekly, his books of etchings, and his illustrations in the children’s magazine Audubon Adventures and some 30 other books.
He was always interested in social, political, and environmental causes, but it was something his brother said that really hit home: “To understand this country, you need to understand the role of race, so go read James Baldwin.” He did, and his studies of race in America led him to make it a major subject of his portrait series.
Now 73, Rob reflects back on the project’s beginnings in 2002, saying, “When I painted the first portrait in the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series, I was thinking about using art as therapy. I was very angry about where this country was going . . .” So, he began surrounding himself with people who have made a difference, people he called “Models of Courageous Citizenship.”
One of his first portraits was of General Dwight Eisenhower (1890–1969), who famously warned of the military-industrial complex in his presidential farewell address of January 17, 1961. On his portrait Rob scratched the words of Eisenhower: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
In 1950, the freshman U.S. Senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith (1897–1995) became distressed by Senator Joe McCarthy’s widespread accusations against innocent people he suspected of Communist leanings. Rob scratched onto her portrait her words: “The right to criticize; The right to hold unpopular beliefs; The right to protest; The right of independent thought. The exercise of these rights should not cost one single American citizen his reputation . . . Otherwise none of us could call our souls our own.” (In those days,” she reflected later, “freshman Senators were to be seen and not heard,” but nevertheless she had felt compelled to speak up.)
A more recent portrait is of Bayard Rustin (1912–1987), Civil Rights leader, confidante of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and chief organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. The Civil Rights Movement leaders feared that if Rustin, who was gay, was front and center it might bring the whole Movement down. On his portrait, Rob scratched Rustin’s words: “First, what is the dynamic idea of our time? It is the quest for human dignity expressed in many ways—self-determination, freedom from bigotry, and equality of opportunity. If we want human dignity above all else, we cannot get it while we are on our knees, we cannot get it if we are running away, we cannot get it if we are indifferent and unconcerned.”
Making the Film, Truth Tellers: On the Road with Rob Shetterly
Last fall, well into filming Truth Tellers, I began hearing of Rob’s plans to go to Charlottesville, Virginia, in late February. He was to visit the site of racial tensions in the 2017 Unite the Right rally where one woman was killed. Seventy-five of Rob’s portraits were going to be exhibited at the University of Virginia, Jefferson’s Monticello, and five other venues. He was to take part in several panel discussions with eight of his portrait subjects, and we were to meet the young African American student, Zyahna Bryant, whose portrait Rob had been painting.
In early February, however, Rob returned home from California with what seemed like a cold. Then on February 6th, I got a frightening message: Rob had had a “small stroke” (a lacunar infarct) and was in Blue Hill hospital. His partner Gail said Rob wanted me to come over with my film camera, a request that had an alarming quality. “Just kidding,” Rob said, wanly, when I reached him on the phone. I guess his humor was a good sign.
In the days ahead, he told me that he was determined to go through with the elaborate planned events down in Charlottesville. I was not sure that the trip was a good idea. I lost plenty of sleep, wondering if Rob would ever fully recover. The stroke left his intonation or “presentation” a bit flat, a worrying sign. By all accounts, though, he was recovering well, and he assured me that the trip was “a go.”
On our drive south, we had planned to visit another of his portrait subjects, commentator Bill Moyers. We departed from Maine for NYC on February 25th and headed with our legendary Director of Photography Bob Elfstrom to the film shoot with Moyers. We schlepped 2+ large carts of film equipment to the 47th floor of the Park Imperial. What a fabulous view of Manhattan and a huge 18’x24’ light source for the interview! We excitedly set up—only to learn that the journalist had fallen ill that morning and needed to re-schedule. We repacked our gear, and it was on to Charlottesville.
Since 2003, Rob has been traveling the country with his portraits, talking about the necessity of living up to our democratic ideals. He has spoken and held exhibits in places as different as middle schools, sandwich shops, libraries, and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. His Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series has been engaging children and adults all across the country in dialogue about the role of dissent in a democracy, the responsibility of citizenship, and the importance of truth. Many people with a range of views have taken part in these discussions.
The people who inspire Rob’s portraits also inspire him to take action. He has traveled to Rwanda with Lily Yeh and Terry Tempest Williams to work with survivors of the 1994 genocide. He has joined the fight against mountaintop removal by coal companies in Appalachia and worked against racial injustice with Civil Rights leaders. He has worked for education and prison reform, and he has gotten arrested for protesting in the movement against climate change.
So, what else could happen to give us another challenge? I think you know . . . a pandemic!
But somehow, in the daunting shadow of the coronavirus, the documentary Truth Tellers has taken an inspirational turn. We expect that our world won’t ever be the same again. And Rob Shetterly’s focus on great Americans at this trying and historic time is illuminating those essential truths that will help our democracy survive and flourish.
Link to the latest clip from the film-in-progress of the unveiling at Charlottesville’s Jefferson Center of Rob’s portrait of Zyahna Bryant: https://vimeo.com/434251249
The article above first appeared in Maine Seniors Magazine, July 2020, and is reprinted by permission. https://www.meseniors.com/
Portraits with a Maine Connection
In creating his series of 252 portraits, Rob Shetterly has painted many people from Maine or with strong Maine connections, and on each he has placed a quotation by that person. Here is a selection.
For fuller biographical information and quotations, go to https://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/portrait-galleries
Denise Altvater (1959– ). Activist, community organizer, co-founder of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.
Esther Attean (1968– ). Teacher, activist, social worker, co-founder of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission process.
Rachel Carson (1907–1964). Biologist, writer, ecologist.
Hal Crowther (1945– ). Journalist, essayist.
Maulian Dana (1984– ). Tribal Ambassador, human rights activist, poet.
Peter Davis (1937– ). Filmmaker, journalist, writer.
Bruce Gagnon (1952– ). Veteran, organizer.
Jim Harney (1940–2008). Photojournalist, advocate for the undocumented.
Peter Kellman (1946– ). Food community builder, union organizer, writer.
Russell Libby (1956–2012). Organic farmer, campaigner for pollution-free local food economies.
Nicole and Jonas Maines (1997– ). Transgender trailblazers.
Chloe Maxmin (1992– ). Activist, organizer, environmentalist, politician.
Natasha Mayers (1946– ). Artist, educator.
Rob McCall (1944– ). Minister, naturalist, writer.
Sherri Mitchell (1969– ). Lawyer, indigenous and human rights activist.
Scott Nearing (1883–1983). Economist, author, organic farmer.
Frances Perkins (1880–1965). U.S. Secretary of Labor, teacher.
Sister Lucy Poulin (1939– ). Social service entrepreneur, humanitarian.
Florence Reed (1968– ). Environmental activist for sustainable farming and rain forest protection.
Cecile Richards (1957– ). Women’s rights activist.
Margaret Chase Smith (1897–1995). U.S. Senator from Maine.
Samantha Smith (1972–1985). Student, peace activist.
Zoe Weil (1961– ). Educator, writer.
Terry Tempest Williams (1955– ). Naturalist, writer, environmental activist.
Image at top: Robert Shetterly’s portrait of John Lewis exhibited at Jefferson’s Monticello. From left to right: Bob Elfstrom, attendees Jean and Dud Hendrick, and Richard Kane (photo: Jacob Kane).