AUBURN – Robert Shetterly told Auburn Middle School students Monday that he paints American history by creating portraits of individuals, many he initially knew nothing about.

The Maine artist famous for his portrait series, “Americans Who Tell the Truth,” spoke to students who’ve been using them to learn about courage, democracy and change.

Since 2001, Shetterly has done more than 200 portraits. His first was poet Walt Whitman, who understood 150 years ago how to survive in this planet, “everything, every animal, every plant, is necessary for the health of everything else,” the artist said.

Abdifitah Hussein, 13, asked him if he has a favorite portrait. Shetterly said he doesn’t.

He’s now working on a portrait of Pauli Murray, a civil rights activist in the 1940s who “was ahead of the curve,” Shetterly said.

“I’m always learning more stories,” he said. “Not a day goes by that I don’t get a letter or email saying, ‘You should paint so-and-so.’ I research so-and-so. I may end up painting so-and-so. I learn stories of American history that all of us should know but we aren’t taught.”

Shetterly has painted Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Samantha Smith and Harriet Tubman. He’s also painted lesser-knowns, such as Barbara Johns of Virginia, who at 16 helped set in motion actions that led to the U.S. Supreme Court striking down racial segregation.

After being asked by fans to paint someone from Virginia, Shetterly learned about Johns from Farmville. In 1951, Johns attended the all-black R.R. Moton High School during the time schools could legally segregate blacks and whites. By law, schools were supposed to be equal.

They weren’t, Shetterly said.

The black school “had no library, no books,” he said. “Some classrooms were unheated, in old broken-down school buses. The school was built for 200 students and had 450 kids. It was way overcrowded.”

The high school for whites “was like a country club,” he said.

Johns was bright and recognized that to have a good future, she needed a good education, which students weren’t getting in the black school, Shetterly said.

She devised a plan to build support for a better black school. She called the white school’s principal, making up a story that there was a ruckus going on he better look into. After the principal left the school, Johns sent notes to all teachers forging the principal’s name, saying there was an emergency meeting in the cafeteria, Shetterly said.

When 450 white students came to the cafeteria, “Barbara stood up and delivered this impassioned speech about the importance of education,” and how black students had the right to good education but they were not getting one, he said.

Johns told students she was walking to the superintendent’s office to demand a better school, and asked white students to join her. They did, according to Shetterly.

The superintendent was angry, Shetterly said, and told her she was in big trouble, to go back to school and her parents would lose their jobs. Firing blacks who spoke out was common in that era, Shetterly said.

“But Barbara wasn’t intimidated,” he said.

She told the superintendent students were going on a strike, refusing to attend classes until blacks got a better school.

“This became a big deal,” Shetterly said. “The Ku Klux Klan came to town and burned crosses. Parents held a mass meeting and voted to stand behind the students, which was unprecedented. It happened because of a 16-year-old kid,” Shetterly said.

Black lawyers from out of state heard what was happening and told Johns the only way to get an equal school was to demand integration. They brought the issue to court, where it lingered for three years before being picked up by lawyer Thurgood Marshall, who brought it to the high court, Shetterly said.

What Barbara Johns did “is amazing,” Shetterly said. “It taught me something really important— you’re never to young or old to cause change.”

The person with courage becomes the teacher of how citizens should behave to bring about justice, he said.

He started his series of paintings after 9/11 as a way handle his anger in a positive way.

“Our government was promoting this war in Iraq for a lot of reasons that were false,” Shetterly said. “I became angrier and angrier that our country was to be taken into war and a lot of people would die.”

He decided to surround himself “with people I admire,” and began painting people who had devoted their lives to the country to live up to its ideals about freedom and liberty, he said.

He planned to paint only 50 portraits. “But something transformative happened,” he said. As he painted, he learned about his subjects’ courage.

“I said, ‘I like spending time with these folks,’” he said.

He’s still painting.

“I can’t stop,” Shetterly said.

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AUBURN — Robert Shetterly, 68, lives in Brooksville near Blue Hill.

In the 1960s and 1970s, he was part of the back-to-the-land movement in Maine, living without electricity and plumbing for 13 years. He and his family raised their own food.

At night, by a kerosene light, he taught himself to draw and paint. He got books from the library and studied the masters. He said painting isn’t complete until the art is viewed and reacted to by others.

For more about Shetterly, go to www.americanswhotellthetruth.org.


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