Robert Shetterly was born in 1946 in Cincinnati, Ohio. He graduated in 1969 from Harvard College with a degree in English Literature. At Harvard he took a couple of courses in drawing which changed the direction of his creative life --- from the written word to the image. Also, during this time, he was very active in Civil Rights and in the Anti-Vietnam War movement.
After college and moving to Maine in 1970, he taught himself drawing, printmaking, and painting. While trying to become proficient in printmaking & painting, he illustrated widely. For twelve years he did the editorial page drawings for the Maine Times newspaper, illustrated National Audubon's children's newspaper Audubon Adventures, and approximately 30 books.
Now, his paintings & prints are in collections all over the U.S. and Europe. A collection of his drawings & etchings, Speaking Fire at Stones, was published in 1993. He is well known for his series of 70 painted etchings based on William Blake's Proverbs of Hell, and for another series of 50 painted etchings reflecting on the metaphor of the Annunciation. His painting tends toward the narrative and the surreal, and he has not been, until this time, a portrait painter.
Artist Statement Concerning Americans Who Tell the Truth
The second strong feeling—the first being horror—I had on September 11 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—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 gone beyond that and have decided to paint many 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.
Americans Who Tell the Truth maintains a rich website at http://www.americanswhotellthetruth.org/. A brief biographical statement and quote are provided for each of the portraits. A curriculum is also offered for teachers to enable them to supplement their American history classes.
Dutton has published Americans Who Tell the Truth, the book of the first fifty portraits in this series printed in beautiful color with short biographies and an essay by Robert Shetterly about the intent of the project. The book is suitable for all ages, but its target audience is middle and high school.
Examples from the Americans Who Tell the Truth Series
“I have asked some of the great white chiefs where they get their authority to say to the Indian that he shall stay in one place, while he sees white men going where they please.”
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
“…The greatest bulwark of capitalism is militarism.”
“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”