Unless you’ve been living off the grid (or in denial) you know the story: In spring 2016, Zyahna Bryant wrote an open letter to City Council, calling for the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue and the renaming of the downtown public park bearing Lee’s name.
“When I think of Robert E. Lee, I instantly think of someone fighting in favor of slavery,” she began her letter. “Thoughts of physical harm, cruelty, and disenfranchisement flood my mind.”
Bryant wrote that she was disgusted with the “selective display of history” in the city. “There is more to Charlottesville than just the memories of Confederate fighters. There is more to this city that makes it great. …I struggle with the fact that meaningful things that are unique to Charlottesville are constantly overlooked. I believe that we should celebrate the things that have been done in this great city to uplift and bring people together, rather than trying to divide them.”
Bryant was just 15, a student at Charlottesville High School, at the time.
This week, Bryant herself was celebrated for her work: On March 1, at the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center, Bryant’s image became part of the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” portrait series by contemporary American painter Robert Shetterly.
Among other things, Bryant’s letter sparked support throughout the Charlottesville community and precipitated the formation of the Blue Ribbon Commission on Race, Memorials, and Public Spaces. In 2017, after considering the commission’s report and recommendations, Charlottesville City Council voted to remove not just the Robert E. Lee statue, but the Stonewall Jackson statue from another nearby public park.
A lawsuit citing state law protecting war memorials blocked the city’s plans to remove the statues, but the Virginia General Assembly is working on legislation that, if passed, would give localities control over what to do with the statues.
Shetterly, an artist who lives and works in Maine, heard about Bryant’s work via his son and daughter-in-law, who both live in Charlottesville. Struck by Bryant’s clarity and persistence (now a first-year student at UVA, she’s continued her local activism), he decided to include her portrait in “Americans Who Tell the Truth.”
“So much depends on an individual who refuses to give in,” says Shetterly, a career illustrator who began this portrait series in 2001. He intended to paint 50 such individuals, to bring their truths closer to his own ears and to those of his audience.
In the nearly two decades since, he’s painted nearly 250 portraits, and he has no plans to slow down. “It got so interesting,” says Shetterly, who believes that “we are all made up of stories. And if we only tell the stories that make us feel good, we’re in real danger of not having any idea who we really are.”
“I [am] learning so much from doing it,” he adds. “I [keep] hearing more stories about more people, and thinking, ‘oh, I have to include that person in this story.’”
It’s difficult to exhibit all of the portraits together, and so they travel in different groups to different places around the country (one gets the sense that the same combination of portraits is rarely shown twice). Currently, portraits of about 60 truth-telling Americans are on view in various locations around Charlottesville (see sidebar), and each show has a different theme, among them civil rights leaders, African American women, and youth activism.
Some of Shetterly’s subjects are contemporary figures, people he’s had the opportunity to meet and get to know (as he has with Bryant); others are long deceased, and so he relies on other portraits and photographs, as well as historical documents, for information. Shetterly paints each subject against a plain and usually colorful background and uses a key to etch a quote from the subject into the canvas, words related to the truth they’re telling. Other than the quote, each portrait is free from embellishment, thereby emphasizing the individuals and the ideals for which they stand.
It’s a “wonderful way to honor people,” says David Swanson, a Charlottesville-based author and peace activist who is one of three locals whose portrait appears in the series. Certainly better than “giant equestrian statues,” he adds. The portraits are personal; taking the time to look at a painting and read the quote is more or less like having a one-on-one conversation with the person in the portrait. And so, “when we hear all about apathy and ‘nobody’s doing anything,’ and ‘we have no leaders,’ and ‘we have nobody who’s getting active,’ just point them towards these portraits of people,” says Swanson.
When Shetterly asked to paint Bryant’s portrait, Bryant considered carefully. She wondered how she might be perceived, not just by viewers of the portrait, but by her community. “Will people think I’m essentially doing this for clout?” she asked herself. She consulted close friends, her mother, and her grandmother, and then looked to see who Shetterly had included in the series so far.
Among the portraits, Bryant saw many black women she admired: Alicia Garza, who, along with Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, founded the Black Lives Matter movement; Michelle Alexander, civil rights advocate and author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness; Ella Baker, who worked behind the scenes in the American civil rights movement for more than 50 years and often does not get the credit she deserves; Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement; and politician Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Congress, who fought for the rights of women, children, minorities, and the poor. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table,” Chisholm once said, “bring a folding chair.”
Bryant was pleased to see that these women, who are often left out of conversations and historical narratives about the very movements they helped spark, and sometimes even ignored by their own communities, were included in the series. She saw people “who do the work as a means of survival…not because they are looking to become someone’s idols, or searching for fame, but literally because if they don’t do the work, people are going to die.”
She thought, too, about how Charlottesville is often cited as a hashtag, an event rather than a place where people live. For those who do not live here (and even for some who do), “there’s no depth in people’s understanding of this place and what happened here,” says Bryant. She hoped that if another Charlottesville resident was added to the series, it would be a person of color.
“So I thought, ‘Who else would be better for this?’ And because I’m so young, and because the work that I did has been erased in certain ways, and it has been miscredited to other people who did not do what I did, I just really think that now it’s important for young black women to take control of our own narratives. That was one of the pushing factors for me to choose to be there [in the series],” she says.
For all of these reasons, Bryant wanted in on “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” and she agreed in part because she gets the sense that Shetterly “puts a lot of care into his work.” She appreciates the artist’s goal of “not just painting portraits, but traveling with these pieces of art and starting conversations in different spaces about who these people are,” she says. “I thought that was really dope.”
Bryant’s portrait—either photographed or illustrated—has appeared in many places, including on the side of the Violet Crown Theater on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall, in a wheat paste mural with more than 100 other local activists; inside and outside the Virginia Museum of History and Culture in Richmond; in Teen Vogue magazine, where she was named one of “21 Under 21” in 2019; and on poster board projects created by local middle school students (Bryant herself was in middle school when, at age 12, she organized her first protest, a rally for Trayvon Martin). And while she says it’s always an honor (and still a surprise) to have her portrait anywhere, having her image included in a traveling art exhibition is something else entirely.
“Oftentimes the platforms that I have access to are traditional articles, or written pieces, so, to then be able to extend into a different medium, or have my story be told and shared with other people in that way, that’s really cool,” says Bryant, who insists that her daily life (college classes, work, friends, family, community organizing) is “pretty average.” She particularly likes that Shetterly includes a quote from each subject, right there in the painting, to add some context. And context can sometimes be lacking in portraiture that’s aiming to relay a specific message.
When asked about the truth she tells, Bryant says that among other things, it’s one “about how people of color have been silently marginalized, silently killed, by this kind of war on our memories, this war on narrative. [My truth] is a truth about our need to reconsider, and reckon with, our past, thinking about how we haven’t done right by certain people—indigenous people, black people, Latinx people—and how we’ve basically continued to build on top of, and cover up, these narratives of displacement, and violence, instead of actually working to do the groundwork and make structural change.”
Those sorts of changes require showing up, and being present, over and over again. And now that Bryant—a young black woman from Charlottesville who braved public scrutiny to catalyze a change she believes in—is included in the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series, her truth, as well as that of those who work alongside her, will be present in new ways, present in more spaces both physically and intellectually. Says Bryant, “it’s given me a different outlook on how I see art as a means to convey certain messages, to start certain conversations.”
Charlottesville’s truth tellers
Bryant is the third Charlottesville resident to be included in Shetterly’s series. The other two are John Hunter, schoolteacher and founder of the World Peace Game (left); and David Swanson, journalist and peace activist (right).
Hunter, who taught at Venable and Agnor-Hurt elementary schools, says that his work—his truth—is about “teaching children the work of peace so that they can increase compassion in the world and decrease suffering in the world.”
The World Peace Game is now taught in 37 countries, by more than 1,000 specially trained educators, and its mission is really about legacy, says Hunter. “The results of the work that we do…will be decades in coming to fruition.”
In 2011, Swanson, a longtime anti-war activist and author of several books, including War is a Lie, learned that then-vice president Dick Cheney was planning a visit to Charlottesville. He emailed local law enforcement requesting that they arrest Cheney for conspiracy to commit torture, and shortly after that, Cheney canceled his visit. “The encouraging thing about these portraits is that there are so many…and [Shetterly] can’t keep up!” says Swanson, who thinks that there are even more people in Charlottesville who should be included in the series.
Where to see it
More than 60 of Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” portraits are on view at various spots around town. The “Truth to Climate Change” exhibit at CitySpace has already closed, but here’s where you can find the others:
“A Place Fit for Women”
Jefferson School African American Heritage Center
Through April 18
Featuring 14 paintings of African American women and commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
“Youth Speaking Truth”
The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative
Through March 31
Featuring 120 portraits made by Charlottesville High School students, alongside eight of Shetterly’s.
“Portraits of Change”
The UVA McIntire School of
Through April 10
Highlighting leadership in business and commerce.
“Americans Who Tell the Truth @ Charlottesville”
Washington Hall, Hotel B, UVA
Through April 10
Featuring portraits of eight civil rights activists.
“Created Equal: Portraits of Civil Rights Heroes”
Through March 31
Featuring portraits of three iconic civil rights activists.