At a ceremony scheduled for noon on Friday, Brooksville painter Robert Shetterly will unveil a portrait of former Maine legislator and civil-rights leader Gerald Talbot in the Lewis Gallery of the Portland Public Library. The portrait is the 155th of his nationally renowned Americans Who Tell the Truth series, and part of an exhibition of 22 portraits curated by Rachel Talbot Ross, Talbot's daughter and president of the Portland chapter of the NAACP.
TO BE UNVEILED Robert Shetterly’s portrait of Gerald Talbot, an icon in Maine’s civil-rights history.
An ongoing project since 2002, Americans Who Tell The Truth is a series of vivid acrylic portraits with rendered quotations on 30-by-36-inch framed wood panels. Its subjects include a broad selection, from 19th-century American pioneers like Sojourner Truth and Mark Twain to more recent public figures like Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and climate scientist James Hansen. The 78-year-old Talbot, the first African-American elected to the Maine Legislature, represents a rare local selection.
WHAT'S THE IDEA BEHIND AMERICANS WHO TELL THE TRUTH? It was exactly nine years ago this month that I started painting (the portraits). I was feeling extremely frustrated and upset about the rhetoric (the United States was using) for attacking Iraq and I thought I had to respond to it in some way as an artist. I didn't feel right not trying to use the thing I do best — which is make pictures — to confront what is going on. I thought, well, maybe if I just started surrounding myself with Americans whom I admire, I'd feel better. That's really where it all began, I was just trying to take care of myself.
I had a goal of 50 portraits and I had no idea who I was going to paint. I was totally flying blind. I'm not a great student of history. One of the most exciting parts of this was the amount of education I've had to inflict on myself.
I started showing them locally when I had 10 portraits. At the first show — at a sandwich shop in Ellsworth — I was invited to a local school. I was expecting to be ostracized, and just the opposite happened. And then through a whole series of serendipitous events it became a national traveling show.
WHAT KIND OF WORK WERE YOU PAINTING BEFORE? If any labels fit, I was primarily a surrealist. I was painting what always seemed to me to be important issues, but they were embedded in fantasy and complex, baffled narrative. I didn't even understand my own paintings. (With the portraits,) my sense of obligation as an artist is 180 degrees the other way.
To be committed to an art that in its simplest form is didactic is a huge change for me, but I think it's absolutely necessary. People are still not getting the issues of the day, the urgency of them, and what really needs to be done. And what our own history teaches us about how to confront problems. That's what I'm trying to do, I guess, present role models, present how to solve problems.