Humane Education Through History, Art, and Inspiration: An Interview with Robert Shetterly

Introduction: After graduating from college and moving to Maine in 1970, Robert Shetterly taught himself drawing, printmaking, and painting, becoming an illustrator at newspapers and of approximately 30 books. After the 9/11 attacks, Rob painted a portrait of Walt Whitman, etching a quote from Whitman on the painting. Thus began his Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series. There are currently more than 250 portraits in the series which have been traveling around the country since 2003. The portraits have given Rob an opportunity to speak with children and adults all over the U.S. about the necessity of dissent in a democracy; the obligations of citizenship; sustainability; U.S. history; and how democracy cannot function if politicians don’t tell the truth, if the media don’t report it, and if the people don’t demand it. Rob served on the Institute for Humane Education’s Board of Directors for several years and is now on our Advisory Council. 

Zoe Weil: When we at the Institute for Humane Education teach people how to be solutionaries, we invite them to answer three questions: 

1. What problems in the world do I most want to solve? 

2. What am I good at?

3. What do I love to do? 

We’ve noticed that when people find the place where the answers to those three questions meet, not only do they become solutionaries, their lives have great meaning and purpose as well. You are one of those people who has found that place where the answers meet. You’ve combined your skill as an artist and passion for painting portraits of changemakers with your dedication to creating a more just, sustainable, and humane world. Americans Who Tell the Truth is the outcome. Can you speak to the power of having found this vehicle for creating change in your own life, and what you’ve noticed are the outcomes from this shift in your career as an artist?

Rob: I’m a self taught artist who believed that using art to explore deeper and deeper into the ambiguities of myself and my community was a worthy artistic mission – an exploration of the mystery of identity and the assumption that by making those explorations visible it might encourage others to do the same. I loved doing this. However, shortly after 9/11 when our government began the propaganda and lies to manipulate this country into attacking Iraq, I was overwhelmed with rage and grief – rage at the lies of our government and grief for all the potential victims. The only way I could live with myself then was to defy this injustice with the best tool I owned – painting. I knew, though, that my defiance had to be based in love and respect rather than anger. My anger had been literally making me sick. My immediate goal was to expose the truth about this country’s war-making by painting portraits of people who had so loved the ideals of this country that they had stood up against the hypocrisy of those who mouthed the ideals but abused them for profit, power, and racist superiority. The origin of the Americans Who Tell the Truth project was art therapy for myself, but the more I pursued it, the more excited I became as I learned about our history, our courage, and our aspirations and strategies for change. And the more I painted, the more other people asked me to talk about what I was doing, what I was learning, and why I was so persistent.

My anger and grief had morphed into an educational project. I had surrounded myself with courage and inspiration, and other people wanted it, too. My social role as an artist had totally changed. I was no longer painting in relation to the history of art, but in relation to the urgency of now, and the truth of who we are, and providing role models for creating change. My artistic voice, once very private, was now very public. I’ve spent 20 years on this work, the success of which depends not only on the choice of the people I choose to paint, but also the quality of the art. The better I make the paintings, the more other people attend to their message. The art authenticates the message.

Zoe: As I’ve told you on more than one occasion, your painting my portrait for your series was one of the greatest honors of my life, but it was more than that. It was also so validating of the educational approach to changemaking, which you’ve embraced as well. Why have you dedicated so much of your efforts to bringing the portrait series to schools and to painting so many educational changemakers?

Rob: Zoe, I’ve learned that the success of democracy and social change depends on how and why we educate our children. It’s essential that we teach not only our ideals, but also the full truth of our flawed history and what it has taken in this culture to come closer to living according to our ideals. If we want to survive sustainably on this miraculous planet and have a thriving democracy, we must teach kids how powerful they can be when they know the truth and are willing to act on it. Unjust power depends on the indoctrination of passivity, while justice depends on the truth and the engagement of citizens. We have to educate for citizenship.

Zoe: Our readership consists primarily of educators. How do you recommend that they use the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series in classrooms and communities to create positive change?

Rob: We ask educators to invite students to study the portraits, choose some, and report on them. What did the subjects of the portraits do? Why? What values did they embrace? What does it mean to you? Then teachers lead discussions in the class about the various people the students chose. What changes did they create or try to create? Was there resistance to what they were doing and, if so, why? The next step is for teachers to ask the students what they care about today and what issues concern them most and to learn which groups are tackling those problems so they can join the effort. Many young people are anxious about the future, and the portraits and follow up work help them allay their fears through action: working together toward solutions. Each portrait, depending on how long you want to spend with it, is a door into not only a worthy role model, but also into history, identity, and agency. 

Zoe: What gives you hope?

Rob: I often say that hope has to be earned; that it is irrelevant and sentimental unless we act. Another way of saying that was presented  by Joanna Macy in a talk in which she said she doesn’t think in terms of hope or non-hope (despair). She doesn’t let hoping stand in the way of getting the job done. We know what needs to be done. Let’s do it. When we arrive at a place from which we can look back we will know if we deserved to have hope or not. The stories of people in the portraits remind us that the actions we must take are necessary because they are the right thing to do. We can’t predict what will happen except what will probably happen if we do nothing, surrender both agency and responsibility, and hope for a deus ex machina.

Today, we are in a  morally indefensible position when we ‘hope’ that  storms, droughts, fires, floods, and the chaos of climate change do not hit us directly. Are we then ‘hoping’ that they hit someone else? The only moral response is to work hard to avert the worst of climate change for everyone. That said, as was implicit in the answer to the question above about education, education is our best hope.