OXFORD — Maine artist Robert Shetterly challenged students at Oxford Hills Middle School’s south campus Friday to paint a self-portrait that asks the question, “What do I believe in?”

Shetterly is best known for his portrait series, Americans Who Tell the Truth, a project begun in response to U.S. government actions following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City. He brought two of his 180 portraits to the school.

He told how he paints and why the portraits are so important to open a dialog about democracy, U.S. history, dissent and other topics.

“All the time we spend really thinking and acting is to find out who we are,” he said. “Who am I?”

Shetterly said he travels the country bringing a historical narrative to students and adults. He said he found too many people, young and old, who are ignorant of their own history.

“It’s appalling,” he said. “We don’t know our own history.”

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“Students in the Mini-Quest ‘This I Believe’ have been working hard to tell a story in their life that has helped shape who they are today,” said teacher Michelle Wood, who co-teaches the class with Jessica McGreevy.

“They have also studied Robert Shetterly’s American’s Who Tell the Truth and learned about courageous Americans throughout history. They are now ready to create their own self-portrait, Shetterly-style,” she said.

In January, the students began writing a story of a life event that helped shape what they believe today, Wood said.

Shetterly gave hands-on assistance, providing students with a palette of paints to mix for their skin, eyes and hair. Once their self-portraits are completed, they will write their belief statement on them.

Student Dominique Millett mixed blue, maroon, mustard and white oil paints to create a flesh color for her self-portrait. She said her belief statement is about recognizing life’s realities.

“Life isn’t always what people want it to be, but we need to accept it,” she said. Many people expect life to be perfect all the time.

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“It’s not,” she said.

The middle school campuses in Oxford and Paris have a themed trimester system comprised of humanities, visual and performing arts, and science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Students also receive daily instruction in math and language arts. The school partners with businesses and individuals to provide hands-on experiences for the studies.

McGreevy said she met Shetterly while teaching a class in Vinalhaven and asked him to share his knowledge with her students.

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