Americans Who Tell the Truth, an exhibition of Robert Shetterly’s portraits of advocates and activists, opens at the YMI Cultural Center Saturday, Sept. 19. The reception marks the unveiling of the project’s newest portrait, an image of the Rev. William Barber, North Carolina NAACP president and organizer of the Moral Mondays demonstrations.
Shetterly’s collection spans American historical and social concerns, including individuals as diverse as the writer James Baldwin, the photographer Dorothea Lange and the whistleblower Edward Snowden. The figures are naturalistic and the backgrounds are stark, most often painted, as the artist says, “looking right into your eyes and challenging you … to become a better citizen.”
The upcoming exhibition of 52 portraits (selected from a total of 215) was organized by a team of volunteers, including members of the Mountain Voices Alliance and led by local consultant Ellie Richard. Shetterly was working on Barber’s portrait when Richard contacted him about a year ago. The artist credits her with planning “the most extensive and ambitious” exhibit in the project’s history, showing in Asheville and Greensboro. “The portraits have been in about 30 states,” he says. “This is the first major exhibition in the South.”
Shetterly began painting courageous American citizens as an act of protest while the United States geared up for the Iraq War. By the summer of 2002, he had completed about 10 acrylic-on-panel works, scratching representative quotes into the surfaces of the paintings with a dental tool. “I wanted to surround myself, by means of the portraits, with people I admired, rather than obsess about the ones I disliked,” he says. “[The] stories — their courage, their perseverance, their ideals — made me a much healthier person.”
But the project’s purpose now, 13 years and 200 paintings later, has mainly to do with education. “Most kids in most schools in this country today … are taught that change happens by the prescribed political process, not that almost every important advancement of rights was won by civil disobedience,” Shetterly says. “They know women can vote, but they’ve never heard of Alice Paul and what she had to do. They may know there is some controversy about the Vietnam War, but they’ve never heard of Daniel Ellsberg. … If we want our children to be good citizens, they need to be taught an honest narrative, so they have examples of courageous citizenship to guide them.”
Since the first Moral Mondays demonstration took place on April 29, 2013, when Barber and 16 other protesters were arrested in the North Carolina State Capitol building in Raleigh for trespassing and failing to disperse, the movement has quickly and consistently grown, spreading to Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Arizona. From bold beginnings it has flourished into a multiracial statewide coalition focused on a broad range of progressive issues, from public education to women’s health care to voting rights.
“I don’t think there is any organizing in this country going on as successfully for basic democratic principles as what is being done in North Carolina,” Shetterly says, citing his inspiration for Barber’s portrait. “The movement is broad-based, inclusive and persistent. The fundamental issue is, ‘What’s necessary for the common good?’”
The subjects of these portraits, the artist himself and the individuals working to show the paintings to a wider audience, have a commonality of purpose and a spirit of cooperation that serve as examples of impassioned and courageous citizenship. “It is one of the great ironies … in our country today, that most people, in this land of free speech, are afraid to tell the truth,” Shetterly says. “It is our job to be truth tellers … to give people permission to think differently, to show with thought and emotion how a new way of being can be achieved.”
WHAT: Americans Who Tell the Truth
WHERE: YMI Cultural Center
WHEN: The exhibit runs though Saturday, Nov. 7. Opening reception Saturday, Sept. 19, at 6:30 p.m. $10 suggested donation/$25-$250 for the gala reception. AmericansWhoTelltheTruth.eventbee.com