Home Art collection Robert Shetterly’s Politically Charged Art Series Celebrates 20 Years at ArtRage Gallery

Robert Shetterly’s Politically Charged Art Series Celebrates 20 Years at ArtRage Gallery


Get the latest news from Syracuse delivered straight to your inbox.
Subscribe to our newsletter here.

In 2001, two planes plunged into the World Trade Center, killing more than 2,000 people. Then the United States invaded Iraq, killing over 200,000 people.

In the year that followed, Robert Shetterly, a Maine-based multimedia artist and longtime activist in the civil rights movement and anti-Vietnam War protests, became increasingly upset by American violence. .

“I was so angry that I became a total nuisance to everyone around me,” Shetterly said. “I was in such a state that I knew I had to do something positive with all that energy. And then one day I looked at my studio wall and there was a Walt Whitman quote that I stuck years ago.

He painted the portrait of the American poet, the first of more than 260 portraits by “American Truth Tellers”, and counting. The paintings are cathartic for Shetterly – a way to ease his frustration and anger at America’s systems of power by focusing on people trying to uphold the values ​​of democracy, though the subjects are historically excluded from the narrative of the American democracy in the first place.

In her paintings, 23 of which are on display at the ArtRage Gallery on Hawley Avenue through October 29, Shetterly uses the power of portraiture to shine a light on brave local and national Americans, living and dead.

What began for Shetterly as a one-off painting of a hero has blossomed into a national organization: Americans Who Tell The Truth, which exhibits the portraits across the United States and runs education and activism programs community.

A portrait of Clifford Ryan, a native of Syracuse and founder of OGs Against Violence, triggers the exhibition at ArtRage. After seeing a photo of Ryan at an ArtRage exhibit last spring, Shetterly said he knew Ryan was exactly the figure he needed – someone on the street acting straight, being brave and speaking the truth. .

With a serious look against a burnt red background, the focus is on Ryan’s eyes, then fades to a sketched shirt and hand gestures. His name is engraved above his head, as is the case with every painting in the series. Above his shirt is a quote from Ryan: “It’s so easy to hate but so hard to love.”

Shetterly bonded with Syracuse activists like Ryan during his time here. This is his third exhibition at the ArtRage Gallery, but he has also exhibited his work five times at Syracuse University and has exhibited portraits at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The only time all of his portraits were exhibited at once — a total of 238 at the time — was at Schine Student Center in 2018.

Although you wouldn’t tell of the consistency of his Americans Who Tell The Truth series or the sensibility depicted in each subject’s face, Shetterly hadn’t painted a portrait before the series. He was known for his illustration and had a place in a gallery because of his drawings and prints. After painting Walt Whitman, Shetterly left the gallery and portraiture became his focus.

A photo posted by artragegallery

Although ‘portraiture’ has historically been a means of bourgeois vanity and expression of esteem, Shetterly’s work recontextualizes the idea as a way of honoring people who are constantly marginalized.

“(I’m trying) to demonstrate to this country that because the country’s original values ​​were never upheld, by design, it took incredible courage and commitment from the people who had been left behind, marginalized, ignored and not included in the ideals of the country,” Shetterly said. “The work to include them, to make the country honest, had to be done by them.”

In its early days, Shetterly aimed to paint 50 portraits. He painted about 20 in the first year, he said, but as the project evolved he began to take more time with each one, painting only five in the last year. Painting became much more processional – Shetterly visits his living subjects as many times as possible while painting their portraits in person. Shetterly called the painting process “intimate” because he mostly uses his fingers directly on the canvas.

Although his historical subjects range from Frederick Douglass to Susan B. Anthony, Shetterly’s only non-living subject on this show is Paul Robeson.

(I’m trying) to demonstrate to this country that because the original values ​​of the country were never respected, on purpose, it took incredible courage and commitment from the people who had been left out, marginalized , ignored and not included in the ideals of the country

Robert Shetterly, Americans Who Tell the Truth artist

To accurately depict his subject without a live shoot, Shetterly said he goes to the library to piece together as many photos of the subject as possible before scouring biographies and articles to fill in the details of eye color and the personality that the often black and white photographs leave out. A portrait can take him anywhere from a few days to a few months, but the process is an essential part of his job.

“To paint a good portrait requires concentration for many days to fully honor the subject of the portrait, to discover a likeness that not only looks like the person, but speaks like the person, radiates something essential about that person , from this one person,” Shetterly said in her 2019 artist statement.

The breadth of the issues Shetterly wishes to bring to light is on full display in this exhibition through the variety of its subjects.

Shetterly included Robin Wall Kimmer, professor of environmental biology at SU; Education reform champion Bill Bigelow and Alicia Garza, who coined the phrase Black Lives Matter. The project began as an anti-war demonstration, and this issue is still at the center of this exhibition through portraits of Daniel Hale, Stacy Bannerman and Paul K. Chapel.

Although Shetterly never claimed his portrayals of American heroes would create world peace, it’s hard to see how little has changed since 2001 – now the ice caps are melting, Russia is dropping bombs on Ukraine and constitutional rights are abrogated. But, in his gallery, surrounded on all sides by the benevolent eyes and fierce expressions of American lawyers, writers, educators and others, it was hard to think of it all. Instead, the focus was on the poetry of Nikki Giovanni, the lives saved by speaking out by Dawn Wooten, and the money raised for Laos by Channapha Khamvongsa.

“Every portrait is like a lifeboat,” Shetterly said. “When I’m wading and I feel like I’m about to sink, I find someone to bring me back to the surface.”

Contact Sydney: [email protected]