Most portraits try to flatter their subjects, but Robert Shetterly’s paintings of “Americans Who Tell the Truth” are meant to challenge the people who see them.
Instead of showing someone with evidence of their wealth and accomplishments, as in traditional portraiture, Shetterly’s works have neutral backgrounds and are inscribed with thought-provoking quotations from the individuals they depict.
“The intent of these is much different — to look at you, to grab you with their gaze and say this is something important — what are you going to do in response?” Shetterly said. “A lot of the quotes are tough, but a lot of what I was doing was challenging myself. How far am I willing to go?”
There are currently more than 240 paintings in the “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series, and 29 of them will be on display at three venues in Ipswich throughout July.
The exhibits will be accompanied by music, dance, theater and poetry programs led by local artists, as well as a three-day visit from Shetterly, who lives in Maine and will give talks and lead classes on July 11, 12 and 13.
While many of his paintings present famous figures, such as Dwight Eisenhower or Mark Twain, others are less well-known, such as Native American activist Oren Lyons or civil rights activist Claudette Colvin.
Shetterly acknowledges that some of his subjects are controversial, but he welcomes any opportunity to defend his choices, which are based on carefully defined criteria.
“Perhaps the essential quality that links all the portraits is moral courage, but what I would do with any of these people is talk specifically about what they did, and then fit that into the fabric of what American democracy is supposed to be,” Shetterly said.
He had his first show of paintings from “Americans Who Tell the Truth” in the fall of 2002, after painting figures such as Frederick Douglass, Mother Jones and W.E.B. Du Bois to express his opposition to the Iraq War.
In his artist’s statement, Shetterly said that he imagined the ghosts of these subjects linking arms and marching down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House with millions of others “to demand the truth about the reasons for the War on Iraq.”
“I knew I needed to do something positive to keep me from ranting and allow me to connect with a history of people who had struggled to force this country to live up to its own ideals,” he said. “I really strongly believed for a while there, somehow, evoking the spirit of Frederick Douglass was going to make a difference, and it certainly did to me.”
Shetterly’s work also had a powerful impact on Meryl Baier when she saw paintings from “Americans Who Tell the Truth” in 2016, at the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina.
“It’s awe-inspiring, not only from an artistic point of view, but the theme of it — looking at people who courageously spoke out,” she said. “These are people who have spoken out when they see something that is not what our country is based on. I want to use it to get people to think about their role in our democracy.”
Baier said that she sees the portraits as a way to bring people together to discuss their differences, which in Ipswich recently have included a divisive debate about schools.
“The state was going to help us fund a new elementary school,” she said. “We have two elementary schools in Ipswich. Some people wanted to keep both, which are not in good repair, and some people wanted to combine them and build a new one. It polarized the town.”
So Baier, a fabric artist who works at Zumi’s Espresso, collaborated with other local artists to bring a selection of Shetterly’s paintings to Ipswich.
“We put out a call for sponsorship to the community, with tiered sponsorship levels,” she said. “If you sponsored, you were able to choose portraits of your choice. We curated the whole thing as a community.”
As a result, Zumi’s, Ipswich Museum and True North Ale Company will host the portraits, which include likenesses of Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Rachel Carson and Shirley Chisholm.
The organizing committee also encouraged local cultural organizations to develop programs to accompany the exhibits, with the result that there are now 30 events scheduled throughout the month.
Chief among these is a grand opening at Ipswich Town Hall on Wednesday, July 3, from 5 to 7 p.m., which will be led by state Rep. Brad Hill.
Baier said that some people objected to Hill’s selection as master of ceremonies because he is a Republican, which she found “really disheartening.”
“The whole point of this is to get people to come together and talk about their differences,” she said. “It was shocking to me that people were not appreciating that point and were making it more black and white — ‘This is for this party, and not for this party,’ which is absolutely the antithesis of what we want.”
If you go
What: “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” portraits by Robert Shetterly
When: July 2-28, with grand opening at Ipswich Town Hall, 25 Green St., on Wednesday, July 3, from 5 to 7 p.m.
Where: Zumi’s Espresso, 40 Market St.; Ipswich Museum, 54 S. Main St.; and True North Ale Company, 116 County Road
More information: Complete schedule of events at awttipswich.wixsite.com/ipswich/events-2