When Robert Shetterly taught himself to draw and paint, he became fascinated by the themes of nature, animals and religious forces. He began making a living by creating art from his home in Maine. But eventually, that wasn’t enough for Shetterly, who’d been an activist for civil rights and against the Vietnam War during his high school and college years.
After the events of Sept. 11, 2001, and the United States’ subsequent invasion of Iraq to destroy “weapons of mass destruction,” Shetterly found himself in a rage over what some have since called flawed intelligence and others have called lies.
“All I could do was rant. And I was really making myself sick,” Shetterly said. He wondered whether he should leave the country or stay and use his talents to have a voice.
The desire to speak out won, and Shetterly started painting portraits of people from the 19th century who were courageous in standing up for what they believed in, such as Harriet Tubman, who had helped lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom via the Underground Railroad.
“I thought, OK well, ‘How can I use this enormous energy that I've got right now, because of how I feel, and do something positive? Something that's about love rather than hate?’”
Since then, Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” project has grown to more than 260 portraits of those living and dead.
“[T]he more I did it, I realized this was not just about my own personal relationship with the country or my own therapy. It was really about education,” Shetterly said.
Today, he continues to connect to communities through painting and through exhibitions and other events. His work travels to settings like museums, schools and faith communities. The documentary “Truth Tellers,” directed by Richard Kane, shares the story of the artist’s work and journey, and encourages people to connect and discuss themes of truth, justice and equality.
Values of faith and honesty
It’s no coincidence that many of Shetterly’s subjects are people of faith and that faith communities have exhibited his work.
“We are encouraged often to think about finding our ethics in our economy, in how many jobs have we got, are people being paid a fair wage, what kind of innovation can we do,” Shetterly said.
But in faith communities, he said, fundamental values like compassion, dignity, truth telling and courage are the ones that must first align.
Shetterly said his faith-focused subjects are people who believe in these values and understand that they can’t live with themselves if they don’t act on those values. When his work is exhibited in faith communities, it can spark conversation and introspection.
What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
In 2022, Shetterly was a guest speaker for chapel at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire, focusing on themes of truth and justice. Speaking to an audience of 650, including 500 students at the residential school, Shetterly shared the story of one of his portrait subjects, Claudette Colvin, who as a Black teenager in 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, refused to cede her seat to white passengers months before Rosa Parks would famously do the same.
St. Paul’s students attend chapel four days per week. There, they grapple with big spiritual questions like, “Who am I?” “Who are we?” “What does it mean to be a good and ethical person?” said the Rev. Charles Wynder Jr., the school’s dean of chapel and spiritual life.
Shetterly’s visit, including his discussion with art students later in the day, brought to life the work, sacrifice, vision and life’s journey of people who have sacrificed for the common good, Wynder said.
For Bethany Dickerson Wynder, the school’s director of diversity, equity, inclusion and justice initiatives, Shetterly’s artwork complemented the school’s efforts to lift up “unsung heroes” in the Black community and supported the school’s focus on education in the arts.
Shetterly’s portrait of the Rev. Lennox Yearwood, the president and CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus and an elder in the Church of God in Christ, features the subject wearing a dark-colored blazer and a matching hat that reads “Resist.”
“Often, the greatest leaders come out of that tradition — that prophetic tradition in the churches,” said Shetterly, who explained that he didn't want to paint his subjects as icons or people on pedestals.
“This isn’t the work of a few heroes and giants — this is the work of people,” he said.
The Rev. Dan Smith, the senior minister of First Church in Cambridge (Massachusetts), Congregational, United Church of Christ, has helped share Shetterly's art in a faith-based setting. Smith engages with the church’s collaborative staff on social justice tasks as well as deep spiritual formation work.
Before the pandemic began, Smith’s church had reached out to Shetterly’s team after seeing the artist’s work in Maine. The church had been doing a deep dive into its own legacy of slavery — finding that there had been more than 30 enslaved people in its historic membership and doing the spiritual work of repair by visiting sites like Selma, Alabama. But the timing wasn’t yet right to connect with Shetterly.
Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
In 2022, the church reached out again, looking ahead to the theme of “Truth that sets us free” for the season of Lent. First Church went on to offer an exhibit that ran from February to June 2023.
The staff chose portraits that connected with the church’s story, whether by geographic proximity or because their words inspired the community. For example, there was a special local connection with the unveiling of Shetterly’s portrait of Harriet Jacobs, an abolitionist and author who had freed herself from slavery and run a boarding house near the church grounds after her escape, Smith said.
“The congregation loved having the portraits. They were immediately inspired when they walked into the building,” he said, noting that staff had scattered the art inside and created a ritual of standing before two images at a time and having a short prayer along with time to hear the subjects’ biographies.
He said the hope is that the exhibit will return, noting that there is a connection between the branches of social justice and the spiritual roots of worship.
How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
“When a congregation gets too focused on prayer life without looking out beyond itself to what’s going on with its neighbors, that’s problematic. I think when a congregation is all about social justice and doesn’t tend to its prayer or worship life, that’s also a problem,” Smith said. “I think the sweet spot is when there's a real sense of balance and integration and alignment.”
One example from Shetterly’s work would be the portrait of the Rev. Jim Lewis, who has focused on issues like health care and criminal justice as an Episcopal clergyperson and author. It depicts Lewis looking out stoically from a blue-green background, with his quote reading, in part, “Turning the other cheek is a revolutionary idea.”
A documented legacy
If the unveiling and display of Shetterly’s portraits is an experience, so too is the act of painting them. The process is so inspiring, in fact, that it spurred director Richard Kane to document it.
“‘Truth Tellers’ is the most important and most difficult film I have made in my long journey of producing almost 100 films,” Kane wrote via email.
“I began following Rob around 2003 in his process of selecting his subjects, interviewing them about their beliefs in the ‘American experiment,’ selecting a quote from their writings, and painting their portraits,” Kane wrote.
“It soon became a series about his belief in returning to the founding ideals of our country — liberty, equality and justice for all. It became a series of discovering one’s moral courage. And it was courageous of Rob to select many lesser known but significant Americans who symbolized our fight for justice — racial, indigenous and moral justice.”
Kane noted Shetterly’s deep belief in democracy is what drove the desire to create the film.
“At a time when there is a pattern of states denying the right of students to study slavery, inequality, diversity, critical race theory, preventing students from learning about our true history, ‘Truth Tellers’ is here to tell the truth and give teachers a tool to have students understand our real history,” Kane wrote.
For his part, Shetterly remains committed to sharing his message and his craft.
“The first thing I do with each painting is I paint the eyes,” he said. “As soon as you paint the eyes on a wooden panel, [it] actually seems like there’s a life there.”
Instead of relying on brushes, Shetterly said, he paints a lot with his fingers, building up thin layers of paint using a technique called glazing. Eventually, the light comes through the paint, and the emotions of his subjects begin to surface, allowing Shetterly to then scratch their words onto each wooden panel, using a dental tool, to bring the elements together.
Early on, for historic subjects, Shetterly painted from existing images. But for subjects still living, he has also traveled to those who are willing to meet in order to understand their stories and capture their images in real time. Today, he has a list of hundreds of people he can paint, including names suggested by others.
Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
Shetterly’s meetings with the subjects might require less than an hour of guided conversation that he hopes will shape their facial expressions, and he then may take just 20 to 30 photographs that capture their emotions in the moment. These days, he can even carry out the initial meeting via FaceTime instead of an in-person visit.
When it comes to the actual painting, Shetterly can finish in about a week to 10 days, but he often spends more time traveling and researching each portrait.
Some of those he approached were wary to participate at first, he said. But after the publication of his first book and the launch of his website, subjects could see the company they were going to be in, he said, and would rarely refuse to sit.
And even though many of the people he’s painted were first unknown to him, many — like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, the pediatrician and public health advocate who revealed the truth of the inhumane conditions in Flint, Michigan — have become friends and even guests for related events. Regardless of whether subjects follow up with program events, the experience can be meaningful.
Kathy Kelly, who was co-founder of the grassroots campaign Voices in the Wilderness and now is president of the board of World BEYOND War, remembers sitting for Shetterly in the early 2000s. At the time, she’d returned from overseas travels where she’d seen children, who couldn’t get pain medication or antibiotics due to economic sanctions, withering away in hospitals.
“It was at a point in time where I felt a little fragile. I think in the painting maybe I look a little fragile,” she said, recalling that it seemed clear that the economic war would become a bombing war.
“Our group really wanted to raise the voices for people who had no voice in the United States,” Kelly said.
In contrast to the difficult scenes she’d witnessed overseas, Kelly’s portrait session was set in a welcoming space by the water, she said.
“Rob Shetterly exposed many, many truths through his amazing portrait artistry that would never have seen the light of day,” she said of his body of work. “And I love it that he does it with [paint] and a few words.”
Portrait subject Louis Clark had a similar positive experience, coming from his work representing and protecting government and corporate whistleblowers via the Government Accountability Project (GAP).
After helping Black voters register and get to the polls in 1960s Mississippi, he had earned his master of divinity degree from Pacific School of Religion before obtaining his law degree from American University in 1977 and becoming director of GAP in 1978, just after its launch. With Clark at the helm, the organization assisted whistleblowers.
Today, Clark calls out the role of faith in the work his portrait highlights.
“A pretty significant percent of the people that come forward are coming forward because they have ethical concerns and convictions, very often religiously based, about what’s right and what’s wrong,” he said. “Because, essentially, what we’re doing is helping people in the workplace to realize their ethics and their morality. And to me, that’s exactly what it’s all about in terms of religion. That is the narrow path — the narrow path of righteousness is truth itself.”
This kind of work — and the willingness to go beyond accepted norms — has historical significance in the church.
“What we know about the history of Jesus is that he was a radical,” added Clark, who is ordained in the United Methodist Church.
“For example, he ate with unclean people. His ministry included — in leadership roles — women, which was pretty unheard-of in the day,” Clark said. “[Jesus] recognized the humanity of all people.”
It’s this kind of action that Shetterly’s project continues to recognize and share for discussion and contemplation. The portraits, and the related documentary, can help inspire and encourage others to tell their own truths, explore their own stories and look out into their own communities.
“What Robert Shetterly does is he tells narratives of truth so that those who look at his images, his paintings, and hear his story … will live into a truth that is loving, life-giving and liberating,” said Charles Wynder, of St. Paul’s School, noting that the essence of truth allows us to liberate ourselves.
“Developing global leaders who pursue truth — seek to live it, strive to tell it, work to protect it — is foundational to not only our faith journey but the aims of religion and faith: to see the divine in others, to find ourselves together [in a way that] recognizes our connectivity and our particularity,” Wynder said.
What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?
Questions to consider
- What are your faith community’s stated values, and how do they align with your action?
- Who are the prophets without pedestals in your faith community making change right now? How can you learn from them?
- How can your faith community use art to more fully and accurately represent itself? To challenge itself?
- Does your faith community ever engage explicitly in the discussion of values like truth, honesty and integrity?
- What radical parts of Jesus’ ministry does your faith community embrace, and what parts does it ignore? Why?