In 2001, as part of his own healing process, Robert Shetterly taught himself to paint portraits of the leading civil rights figures across American history. His ambitious target of 50 potraits has grown to 260, regular teaching events and a new book.
DN: I was quite interested to see that when you started the project before the book came along, you did it after 2001 as a form of coming to terms with what had happened, but it has mutated very strongly into an educational project and has garnered a lot of interest. Did you start thinking you were going to be teaching and educating people about the civil rights movements over the centuries?
RS: Absolutely not. This all began really as an art therapy project for myself. I was so distraught both with anger and grief over the propaganda that was being used in this country to enable the Iraq war, which was an absolute outrage, a war crime. I needed to find some way to reconcile myself back with this country, in a sense, not by accepting what was happening, but by embracing people who have stood up against it since its founding; people who actually believed in the ideals of the country and were not willing to compromise them. And of course the founding of this country involved just a blatant betrayal of its own ideals, and so we have, to the extent that we have them today, we have them because of the people who have stood up against it and insisted on them. And so that – it was my wanting to be in that company that made me want to make these paintings, but at first it was really just a for myself and it wasn’t until I had begun to show them that other people said to me ‘wow, you could use these for education, would you come into my classroom and talk about who these people are?’ And all of a sudden I began to realise first that the paintings themselves were an education project and then we could use them to build a curriculum which we could then take to schools,
DN: So I imagine when you started and you thought you would do roughly 50 and they blossomed into nearly 200 now, that you’ve been on a learning curve as well over the last 20 years?
RS: Huge. I mean I was an English major in college and then self taught as an artist. I was never very profound even though I had been an activist around civil rights issues off and on for a long time. I had never been a really committed student of history. Interested in it, but not, you know, deeply – not deeply enough to really have studied it. You know painting portraits has required learning an enormous amount of history; first about each person and then around their time and what it meant to be who they are. So that’s one of the most exciting things about this for me … is the history I’m learning and the stories I’m able to tell when I go into schools and colleges and talk with other groups of people. I can tell stories of the people I paint and I can also tell the context, the historical context in which they operate. It’s been actually fascinating.
DN: Do you find the art produces a more immediate response and more engagement from the young students than if you just went and gave a lecture?
RS: Absolutely. That’s a really interesting question Daniel. There are a lot of aspects to the art part of it. First of all, I chose to do this … to make my political and moral statement through art because art is the best thing I do, as it has the most … it is the strongest voice I have and so when I show these paintings to other people they respond to the art of it, you know, and they respond to … they can see that I have aspired to make something you know, not just a political art but a real … I’ve tried to make paintings that aspire to be real art, lets put it that way. And I think when real art is successful it validates its own message in a way, I mean it shows a commitment by the person making that to the highest standards that person can attain which is what I try to do with every painting. I tried to do the best I can to honour the person I’m painting and do it in a truly artistic way. I don’t want to sound like I am doing cartoons of people and scratching with a magic marker, it is much more … much deeper and more intense than that – and people respond to that even people who disagree with the politics of what I’m talking about are or disagree with the history. They respond to the art and then I’m able to make … the statements I make – what I wanted to say– because of the art.
DN: America is still a young country and I’m wondering when you look at the history, because you’ve gone back to the 19th-century, as well as being able to sit with modern civil rights activists and people of various natures, if you see a continuity of thought between them over the last 200 years or if you think there have been substantial changes in the way Americans view themselves?
RS: Well that’s interesting.
DN: It’s a tough question, you don’t have to answer.
RS: No No No, of course I want to answer it as best I can. Well first of all this is in a number of years a young country, but the flaws, the compromises, the sins are the same as any old … much older country where we place our inner desire for power and profit ahead of our own morality or ethics. I mean that’s an old problem. The people who are activists today … yes they’re not dealing with the more dire and obvious things like chattel slavery or lynchings, but some of the things that being done today … you know, the police brutality … the killings are not that far removed and because racism is so tightly woven into the fabric of this country, the class separations to the distribution of wealth in this country … the problems are still very similar. It is it still there and it probably will be there for a while because even though the events of the last few years have enabled a lot more open discussion about, say, white privilege and systemic racism …things like that we’re still a long way from really facing the extremity of what it has meant in this country and what it still means going forward.
DN: You’re not alone. Robert, I mean England is pretty much the same place; we don’t have as much gun violence, obviously, but we are very much in the same place with Brexit and everything else. We are still coming to terms with the loss of empire.
RS: Well the United States still wants to be an empire and expand it … which is terrifying.
DN: As a magazine we come from the idea that we can comment on art and that makes a substantive difference in the typical pragmatic way on how culture views itself and how people learn about themselves and you come from art and you’re taking it into the political sphere to try and mirror almost what we are doing but, you’re doing it in a very specific way, which I found very refreshing and very interesting. Who first approached you to actually put this all into a book?
RS: Yes, the publisher of New Village Press, which is a non-profit press in New York City … a woman named Lynn Elizabeth talked to me about the possibility of making a book of the portraits, but not just one book because there now actually almost 260 portraits and they cover many different themes in American history. She suggested a series of books, the first being racial justice, being so pressing and urgent at this moment and the second being climate justice or earth justice, as we may call it, because that is perhaps even more pressing but, you know, something that would come second. If those two books do at all well, we will go on and do books about war and militarism, and books about other issues, press and education … because I’ve covered so many different topics. It was her idea and I am very excited because back in 2005 the publisher Dutton made a small book for children … it was marketed for children though it wasn’t specifically for children it was called just Americans Who Tell the Truth and it was my first 50 portraits. And that actually did pretty well in that market and enabled me to get into a lot of schools – and since then I have painted 200 more portraits and I haven’t had another book, and so this opportunity to put them in a book together, themed like this with some essays by people who are in the book was absolutely thrilling to me.
DN: Were there any particular individuals that you just knew from the start you had to paint – people who inspired you – people that you really loved learning about?
RS: Absolutely. I mean sometimes when people ask me who’s your favourite portrait, I right away say that’s like asking a parent who’s your favourite and even if you’ve got one you’re not going to answer.
RS: I always answer. It’s not so much they’re favourites. They’re ones that shine a bright light on certain kinds of issues which underpin this entire project. One of the first portraits was Sojourner Truth who was a slave, not in Alabama but in New York state, and was freed in 1827 when slavery was ended in New York and New Jersey. This is just one generation before our Civil War and the quote that’s on her painting is critically important. She says: “Now I hears talking about the Constitution and the Rights of Man and I comes up and takes hold of this Constitution and it’s mighty big and I feels for my rights.” It’s like the Constitution is this big hairy animal and she’s got to reach in … inside it and feel around to see if there are any rights for her … you know… “and I feel for my rights and there aint any there and then I says what ails this Constitution, and he says to me Sojourner there’s a little weasel in it.” That weasel in our Constitution has enabled people to maintain power, especially white people, for 200 hundred years to avoid the reality of their own language, justice and unalienable rights and those things – has been the great struggle of this country. I think that if we are ever enabled to say that a people or a country has any nobility or is noble, it’s because of how they struggle to live up to their own ideals and these people I paint are mostly those people. That’s what they have done. They were the ones who are marginalised and denied those rights and so by their struggle to find them, they create our own nobility
DN: It’s really 260 paintings of some of the most courageous Americans who have ever lived.
DN: Is it you who makes the decisions about who you’re going to paint next, or do you do take advice from people?
RS: Well lets say I get an awful lot of suggestions. Every day. In fact when I go out to speak I always ask an audience ‘if you were doing what I’m doing, who would you paint?’ I get a lot of good suggestions. I only do a fraction of the people … so it’s my own education as we talked about earlier that produces many of the portraits, but also this has been a huge community effort in a sense. People are always bringing me stories about other people who do pretty amazing things and saying this will make a great portrait. And often it does and that’s where a lot of them come from, but it’s ultimately my choice. And I want this to be my choice. This is very subjective. There are people, certainly, who look at this show and say, ‘who are you to decide who the Americans are who tell the truth?’ and I can only say well I’m just one person. I’m making subjective choices. If you would like to see collections of portraits of different people paint them … do it yourself. This is my thing. … you know. I stand behind it … you know. Whenever I get really depressed about where we are in the world right now, one of the first things I do is start another portrait and then hitch a ride on somebody else’s inspiration and courage. You know you mentioned the incredible courage of these folks … one of the most important quotes for me is not on a portrait but was said by William Sloane Coffin. He died years ago but was one of the first works and a great inspiration. He was an elder in the Vietnam War and in the civil rights movement and he said, ‘without courage, there are no other virtues’ and I believe that intensely and the courage of these people, you know, is the thing that allows us as a society to hold onto the virtues of society … you know the things we say we live by which we often don’t unless we are courageous enough to insist on it.
DN: So these portraits are going to just continue to increase. This is never going to end for you. (RS laughs) This is an ongoing project?
RS: When I painted the first portrait … you know there are some funny stories in there … but when I committed myself to doing it I had never painted a realistic portrait in my life I was an artist who thought, well I’m going to do this thing and teach myself how to paint a portrait. So I did that and then I thought I’d set a goal that I don’t think I’ll ever reach which was 50 because I didn’t think I could afford to do it because I don’t sell. And then I couldn’t stop. It’s too fascinating, the stories are too good and the times keep changing and producing new people for me to paint, even though I go back and forth in history. It is just too interesting and I can’t imagine doing any other art at this moment that is less engaged with this historical moment.
DN: If you’re giving any book launches or doing any events, just let me know and we’ll add it to the magazine when we put it online.
RS: Oh how wonderful. There are lots of things happening now after a year-and-a-half of Covid where everything stopped except for Zoom meetings. I will travel a bit again. The shows are picking … you know … the portraits are moving to different places around the country again.
DN: How is the art world taking to this? Is everybody enthusiastic? Do you have to push at all or do people come to you and say we want to do an exhibition?
RS: That’s the only way we can get exhibitions … is people coming to us but whether it’s the … I wouldn’t say it’s the art world that asks for shows, it’s schools, colleges, churches, museums sometimes … you know … centres of engagement, a big show coming up at Muhammad Ali Centre in Louisville, Kentucky and that’s the kind of place that I love having them because they put on a show, they do lots of background around it, and then bring in a lot of schools to see and be taught around the portraits. It’s a kind of thing which is thrilling to me. Although we have a show coming up at a museum in Florida are next year … a big show … but that’s kinda rare, just a museum show, but they also want to use it for education. Everybody is thinking about this and how they can they use it to confront where we are at this moment.
DN: Some journalist recently wrote that in the 1960s civics was actually taught in American schools (RS laughs) Not any more. Is that right?
RS: It fact it was true as a country that believes in citizenship and democracy and for a while they actually taught how to be citizens, what might be required of them. This is a little bit of how to do that.
DN: Well I wish you every success. Robert.
RS: Daniel. Thank you asked me some really good questions I haven’t been asked before.
DN: Well, I understand where you’re coming from. Because this magazine was started in community. We are having a book written about us and we are actually called the ‘loyal opposition’, we sit upon the right to comment upon all cultural things without fear, without favour. We do not do favours because we think that the minute you start doing favours or you let money dictate what you do, you disable culture.
DN: People do not understand how important the image is and how powerful images are. So we like to talk to people who are doing really good community things because that’s where we think the power is of the art world today. We are less interested in the big guys because it’s really all money, nothing else.
RS: Now I wish I could have said that as well. It sounds exactly like what I would say.
DN: I get that. I get that. It was lovely to have met you, Robert.
Robert Shetterly’s page;