Portraits of Courage

These aren’t just people in paintings looking at you. They are people imploring you to listen and act.

Robert Shetterly is the painter of Americans Who Tell the Truth, a series of portraits honoring the words and work of courageous Americans throughout history.

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I did not want to paint these portraits. Over 25 years, I had built up a career as a surrealist painter-enough of a career to pay my bills, work full time, and, it seemed to me, fulfill my societal obligations as an artist. I had never painted a portrait.

Then September 11, 2001... then a war launched not against the perpetrators of the crime but against a country where they had some training bases... then the blatantly false reasons promoted by our government for the preemptive war on Iraq. My sense of obligation as an artist changed.

At first, what I wanted most was to express my grief, cynicism, and shame. But I soon realized that agonizing over my shame for this country would lead me nowhere positive. Why, I wondered, don't I surround myself with people who make me feel proud, people who have insisted that this country live up to its own professed ideals about inalienable rights, equality, and justice? Why don't I invoke their spirits by painting their portraits?

I did not want to support the myth of American exceptionalism, the stories of power and domination that we tell to set ourselves apart from the rest of humankind, but to tell the story of this country's long and courageous struggle for justice. Our revolution did not end in 1787. At the signing of the Constitution, we did not free the slaves, give political rights to freed African Americans, Native Americans, women, the disabled, or poor whites. Our revolution was just beginning.

I decided to portray real, ordinary people who continued that revolution by fighting to extend rights to everyone, whose persistence and courage changed their own lives and provided role models of all of us. "Without courage," William Sloane Coffin said, "there are no other virtues." Any person acting with courage for justice, becomes a teacher, becomes a light in the darkness, encourages all of us to become our own lights. Just as fear is infectious, so is courage.

Think of Sojourner Truth, the illiterate ex-slave, who became one of the greatest leaders for women's rights and the abolition of slavery. Today we remember and admire her, not her rich white owner-not his social status, money, or privilege, but her courage. Colonel Ann Wright's resignation from the diplomatic corps in protest of the illegal invasion of Iraq was not intended to make herself a celebrity. She resigned to better defend the Constitution that she had sworn to protect. Think of Rachel Carson, dying with cancer, refusing to be intimidated by the chemical companies who were using all of their power to humiliate and discredit her when she exposed how their chemicals were poisoning the natural world. What a debt we owe to her courage!

At the same moment that I got the idea to paint the portraits, I knew that the words of the subjects had to be on their portraits. The statements being made about various forms of justice had to be literally spelled out. These aren't just people in paintings looking at you. They are people imploring you to listen and act.

When I began painting, I didn't expect to share the portraits-I imagined a stack in my attic that would make me feel better. I set a goal of 50 portraits, but never expected to reach it. Now there are 150 portraits. They travel to schools, colleges, libraries, museums, and community centers all over the country.

I titled the collection "Americans Who Tell the Truth" to recognize that telling the truth about our nation and its needs is not a small act, but one of great bravery. Marion Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund, once said, "What's wrong with our children? Adults telling children to be honest while lying and cheating. Adults telling children not to be violent while marketing and glorifying violence. I believe adult hypocrisy is the biggest problem children face in America." I have repeated that quote to students of all ages all over this country and have yet to find a student who disagreed with it.

I would not classify my decision to give up my former artistic career to paint these portraits as an act of courage, but I would call it an act of defiance, of resistance, of refusal to accept a lie as a patriotic reason for war, of refusal to accept that a country that allows a presidential election to be stolen is the greatest democracy on earth. The portraits are an affirmation that only through persistent courage and dedicated citizenship can we maintain our ideals. If we want to define the destiny of this country as a movement toward enlightenment and justice, we have to accept the responsibility of making that happen.

As Frederick Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will." He also said, "Find out what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong that will be imposed on them." For me, those two quotes explain all we need to know about the interests of power and the necessity of citizenship.

Painting the portraits has been an enormous education for me. Cynicism about corruption and hypocrisy is hard to maintain once you have studied the lives of John Lewis, Alice Paul, Diane Wilson, Bill McKibben, Dahr Jamail, Lily Yeh, or so many others. It's daunting to oppose the forces that prefer war, daunting to oppose the forces that prefer economic hierarchy, daunting to oppose corporate media and the control that corporations have on the political process, but it's also exhilarating. And it's right.

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This article was written for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.