BETHEL — Portrait painter Robert Shetterly spoke at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day program Monday at Gould Academy of other “truth-tellers” who had an impact on promoting social, environmental and economic fairness.
The presentation by the Brooksville resident focused on his portrait series titled “Americans Who Tell the Truth.” The collection consists of citizens who “courageously engage issues of social, environmental, and economic fairness,” according to his website.
Shetterly told students and faculty that each year on MLK Day he, “can’t think of any other word besides ‘depressed’ to describe it.
“You may think, ‘What, depressed? On a holiday like this?’” Shetterly said.
“Pay attention to the news, whether it’s NPR, Fox News or other news stations, and of course, they always make a big deal out it and play a 20-second clip of the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech,” he said. “The reason the holiday depresses me is because the hoopla and celebration is most often used to disguise and hide what he really thought, what he really said and probably, what he really died for.”
Shetterly said, in his opinion, the most impressive and important speech King ever gave was his “Time to Break Silence” speech delivered April 4, 1967, in Riverside Church in New York.
“He made public for the first time his feelings on the Vietnam War,” Shetterly said. “He equated militarism with racism, consumerism, materialism and poverty, saying that these were all part of the totality of what this country had become, that these things were inseparable.
“King had been advised to not give this speech,” Shetterly said. “People said, ‘What you’re doing is about civil rights. This is not our issue. This is not what we’re struggling for.’ King said, ‘No, you’re wrong. My conscience demands that I give this speech.’”
Shetterly talked about several of his other paintings, including portraits of Sojourner Truth, Wendell Berry, Woody Guthrie and Oren Lyons.
He asked the audience to consider the “thousands and thousands of people who played different roles, the many martyrs who gave up their lives, whether anonymously or actively.
“A person like Martin Luther King Jr. begins to seem like a one-of-a-kind person,” Shetterly said. “An extraordinary man who was a savior, and we think ‘Thank goodness that we had him, or else civil rights wouldn’t exist, nothing wouldn’t have changed, and I hope another savior comes.’ That isn’t who he was or who he wanted to be. He would not have succeeded if it were not for those thousands of others who helped.”
Monday’s program was organized by Arla Patch, community outreach coordinator for the Maine-Wabanaki REACH program.
Patch said her intent in organizing a joint Martin Luther King Jr. Day event with Gould Academy and the Maine-Wabanaki REACH program was to promote a “transformation of consciousness.” She said that during the recent Molly Ockett Festival, the Maine-Wabanaki REACH program had students from Telstar Regional High School and Gould Academy participate in an essay contest instead of having a non-native woman dress up as Molly Ockett and parade down Main Street.
For years, Bethel organizations have held Molly Ockett Day, named for the Pequawket Indian who lived among and befriended the early settlers of Western Maine.
“It was frankly embarrassing and offensive to see that,” Patch said, “and that’s something that has been going on for 55 years. Last year, instead of a non-native dressing up as Molly Ockett, we attempted to shift people’s awareness by having an essay contest asking students what they thought times were like for Molly Ockett and her people.”
Patch said she told Shetterly about Esther Attean, a Passamaquoddy Tribal citizen and co-director of the Maine-Wabanaki REACH program, and Denise Altvater, the organization’s youth outreach and education coordinator, and the work they had done.
Attean, along with Altvater, were instrumental in the creation of the Maine Wabanaki-State Child Welfare Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The commission’s purpose is to “uncover and acknowledge the truth of what happened to Wabanaki children and families in the Maine child welfare system, create opportunities to heal and learn from the truth, and collaborate to improve the child welfare system for Okinawan children and families,” according to its website.
Upon hearing about Attean and Altvater, Shetterly said he interviewed them and painted portraits of them, which were unveiled last month at the State House in Augusta.
“Doing my little part to help spread and authenticate the voice of native people has been one of the most profound parts of the past 12 years of doing this project,” he said.
Prior to Shetterly’s talk, four Gould Academy students read short reflections on some of Shetterly’s portraits.
Junior Hannah Runyon chose John Lewis, a civil rights activist and Congressman. She said she found Lewis “very interesting,” especially after learning that he was heavily influenced by Martin Luther King Jr.
She said the programs Gould organizes are “really special. It puts a different spin on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, instead of kids just getting a day off from school.”
Senior Madison Hertzog wrote about Margaret Chase Smith, a former United States senator from Maine. Hertzog said she was first enamored with “the colors that were used for the painting. I’m also very interested in empowered women and think that she was a very important part of history that people should know more about.”
Monday’s program allows students “to see a different aspect of suffrage in the United States, and instead of looking at just Martin Luther King Jr., we get to see hundreds of other people who helped the world,” Hertzog said.
Freshman Zoe Bean chose Winona LaDuke, an activist and environmental writer, because she found her interesting.
Junior Pratt Olson chose John Brown, a white American abolitionist, due to “the conflict surrounding him” and the fact that he was “willing to die for what he believed in.”
History Department Chairman Brad Clarke said, “Pat Donovan, the associate head of school, and I have been working together for what seems like seven or eight years to organize these Martin Luther King Jr. Day events. It’s great to have these people who are known throughout the state for advancing civil rights speak at our school.
“We’ve had guest speakers in the past, but this is the first time we’ve had people from the state who are very committed to the cause of civil rights,” Clarke said.
Clarke later lauded Patch for her role in organizing the event.
“She was sort of the mover and shaker, and a lot the synergy seemed to be coming from her. She did an incredible job here and, selfishly, for me, it was great to be exposed to the caliber of these kinds of speakers,” he said.
Patch said that, for her, the most exciting part of the program was “the merging of different disciplines.
“Art and painting, truth and reconciliation, history and storytelling, natives and non-natives,” Patch said. “It’s a wonderful integration on so many levels.”