By Charles Burns
In this age of “fake news” and “alternative facts,” there are few values more precious than complete honesty. Robert Shetterly, an American artist, realizes this more than most. Years ago, Shetterly embarked on an ambitious project: a portrait series of citizens committed to addressing pressing issues with the kind of remarkable candor and clear-eyed morality all too lacking in public policy and discussion, both then and today.
In the wake of 9/11 and the run-up to the Iraq War, Shetterly became increasingly appalled by the level of dishonesty coming from the U.S. government and the media. Feeling a moral imperative to highlight truth in a time defined by so much falsity, the career illustrator turned to painting.
“The only thing I could think to do was surround myself by painting portraits of people who made me feel much better about living here,” says Shetterly. He originally intended to paint 50 portraits for “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” but hit that goal in a few years and realized he was just getting started. “So I just kept going,” he says. The project is now at 245 portraits and counting.
In Charlottesville, however, the focus isn’t all on Shetterly. Art students at Charlottesville High School were asked to create their own portraits of figures they regard as truth-tellers, with the resulting paintings featured alongside some of Shetterly’s own work in “Youth Speaking Truth,” an exhibition that first hung in the lobby of the Martin Luther King Performing Arts Center at CHS and is now on view at The Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative. Subjects of the student-produced paintings were incredibly varied, ranging from Kobe Bryant to Bernie Sanders to Michelle Alexander to Timothée Chalamet. Some students even painted their parents. Shetterly contributed portraits of Claudette Colvin, a plaintiff in the lawsuit that ended bus segregation, Rachel Corrie, a young activist killed in the Gaza Strip, Maulian Dana, a tribal ambassador and human rights activist, and more.
Abigail Brisset, a sophomore at Charlottesville High School, chose to draw her mother for two reasons: her career in counseling and her Ethiopian heritage. As a counselor, Brisset’s mother is required to offer insight and honesty on an almost daily basis, forced to constantly be both generous and unflinching. “A lot of people trust her, and she speaks a lot of truth,” says Brisset. Her Ethiopian background also informs the way she approaches her interactions with anyone and everyone; according to Brisset, her mother is constantly late to events, in keeping with her culture, because “what’s happening in the moment is more important than where they have to be.” When chided, Brisset’s mother’s response is simple: “This is who I am.”
Richard Herman, a junior, painted Rachel Carson, a marine biologist whose 1962 book Silent Spring, and its explanation of the destructive effects humans have on the natural world, boosted the environmental conservation movement. “She was an important person to my great-grandmother,” says Herman, who first learned about Carson from his art teacher, then heard more about the writer’s influence from his grandmother.
Sophomore Belaynesh Downs-Reeve turned the tables and drew Shetterly himself. “He paints under-represented stories in history,” says Downs-Reeve, noting that this makes Shetterly a truth-teller in his own right.
CHS art teacher Jennifer Mildonian says the exhibit is important for numerous reasons. “This is a special exhibit because the students got to meet a professional artist who’s working in the world of art, but also the world has been so unbalanced that they’ve had some really good discussions about what it means to be a truth-teller, and so I think it’s been a process of digging deep a little bit to figure out what that means to them.”
During a recent reception for the CHS iteration of the show, Shetterly remarked that, “what we’re gradually identifying here, and what the students have helped to identify, is the community that we want to be part of, the values we want to live by. I mean, that was what got me going in the first place. I thought, ‘I can’t live in this country, that allows this kind of thing to happen. I’ve got to surround myself with people who make me feel good about the history of this country.’ And that’s why I started painting.”
Let’s hope that these talented student artists continue to follow Shetterly’s lead.
“Youth Speaking Truth” is an exhibition of 120 portraits by Charlottesville High School students alongside works from Robert Shetterly’s “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series. See it at The Bridge PAI this month.