” When I started drawing I was seeing beautiful things in the world, which I didn’t have the vocabulary for, because they were, as good Art should be, slightly beyond words, outside of the total emotional response. I was feeling something I couldn’t describe, and I wanted to imitate it; I wanted to ‘do’ what I was seeing.”
I first met Rob Shetterly at his home in Maine, having invited him to The Advent School as a visiting artist in the fall of 2010. I’d seen photographs of his portraits of Americans who Tell the Truth, but when I viewed them first-hand I was taken aback. Each painting is a vehicle through which the artist conveys his understanding and appreciation for someone who has struggled to attain justice. Believing that students can learn by example about how to become changemakers, Rob works closely with young people. He describes the challenges overcome by those he has painted and gives students a medium through which to share their own perspectives.
“Why do you make Art?” On a mid-summer afternoon, Rob told me his story. When traveling to parts of Europe where teens rarely tread, he visited museums, and for the first time this “boy from Ohio” recognized that Art can touch one’s soul. He began collecting postcards and when he returned home, drawing.” I noticed immediately that I had never looked at anything. You know how a blade of grass turns or my own hand or somebody else’s ear. I had the words. We all use the words. But okay, now describe it without words. I couldn’t have done that. I couldn’t have done it with anything. I had never really looked.”
What came next “was not just the literal seeing of the natural world, the physical world, but was being able to look inside at my own thoughts, anxieties, problems, imagination, and find some physical, some visual form to put those ideas in – some metaphor. Art can carry you beyond the literal. It can describe the literal at the same time it thrills you in a way that just looking at the thing doesn’t. That’s the mystery of it.”
Ultimately Rob began to see into the lives of others, and he painted his first in a series that now numbers close to 200 representations of Americans Who Tell the Truth. He’s gone far beyond building a bridge between “the community of people who struggled for justice in our past and the community of people who are doing it now.”* Through his Art work he is sharing his profound respect and deep sense of caring for those he’s come to know.
How does Art making alter our perspectives on social justice, culture, and humankind? “Art makes you think about what has value in the world and gives you access to it.” Encounters with such individuals as Lily Yeh and Alice Waters, pictured above, continue to transform Shetterly. He, in turn, is traveling across the globe to teach young people that they too can change lives.
In an ideal world what place would Art making have in our schools? “Art actually allows us not only to express ourselves, but to discover ourselves. We find ourselves through Art. Everything I know about myself and most things I can articulate about the world I’ve discovered through the process of Art making.”
“Art is all we can do for our children,” he told me. “It gives them a chance to experiment, to think critically. The process of Art making changes your thinking.”
If we cut back on our Art classes, what might the impact be? “Art allows kids to individuate. When we take Art out of our schools, we are saying to our children is we don’t want you to be who you are. With Art there is no limit. Art gives us pieces of everything. “
Thank you, Rob Shetterly, artist, teacher, and social activist. You have given me and so many others a new lens through which to view our world. I look forward to our continuing conversations.
Nancy Harris Frohlich
*If you want to learn more about Robert Shetterly, go to his website, americanswhotellthetruth.org.