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Hanging Around: Robert Shetterly's portraits of American activists are on display at four downtown Santa Cruz locations.

Americans Who Tell The Truth

Robert Shetterly's exhibit, now showing in downtown Santa Cruz, portrays American activists against a backdrop of their own words.

By Steve Hahn

Artist Robert Shetterly finds power in simplicity. His most recent paintings, now showing at various locations around Santa Cruz as part of the exhibit Americans Who Tell the Truth, are portraits of famous American political activists, living and dead, each against a single block of color in the background. There are no extravagant representations of untamed wilderness, suffering workers, dying soldiers or oppressed people to drive home the social critique embodied in these figures. Instead, Shetterly writes a short quote from each activist on his or her canvas. With a lifelike Cindy Sheehan staring back at the viewer, and the script describing the loss of her son in a Baghdad firefight, the viewer hardly needs to see an Iraqi street littered with body parts to get the point.

The more than 40 portraits featured in various Santa Cruz buildings for the next two months don't just focus on contemporary American politics. The faces and quotes of history's great activists, including Susan B. Anthony, Cesar Chavez and Frederick Douglass, remind viewers of the struggles those on the bottom rung of the American ladder have had to fight for a measure of equality in this country. Shetterly urges viewers to consider whether these struggles should be completely relegated to the past."Each person selected has to be a metaphor for 100 or 1,000 different people," says Shetterly. "When I selected the quotes, I was looking for something that was important in their own time, but had something about it that made it important today. I often end up using the most pointed and, in some cases, difficult statements because to me they point the way to solving the real problems of peace, injustice, militarism, poverty and environmental destruction."The idea for the exhibit came to Shetterly as he attempted to come to grips with his own reaction to the rhetoric being spouted in the build-up to the Iraq war. Shetterly experienced a mix of anger, shame and grief at the recklessness of the "arrogant and belligerent" positions the country was taking. As he researched prominent Americans, he found he could work through his troubling feelings and find inspiration and hope for change.

"I looked up at my studio wall one day and saw that I had years ago pinned up a quote from Walt Whitman. I looked at that on the wall and I realized I could paint his picture, I could scratch his quote into it, and I would feel a lot better," Shetterly says. "I want to do my little part to define patriotism as being based in fighting for the ideals of the country and not for the rights of exploiting resources and having lots of stuff."The portraits represent figures from a wide swath of American history, including the civil rights movement, the environmental movement, the labor movement and many from the antiwar movement. Among the most surprising figures in the exhibit is Dwight D. Eisenhower, outfitted in his four-star general's uniform, with a quote railing against the terrible "theft" of resources from the common man that war entails.Shetterly hopes that viewers will come away from his portraits thoughtful and inspired, even if they don't agree with all of the somewhat left-leaning views expressed in the paintings.

"I don't approach what I'm doing as in any way partisan," he says. "What I'm out there to do is to talk about the ideals of the country and how important political change is in terms of equality, social justice, environmental justice and worker's justice. Our laws and Constitution, as great as they often are, don't give us those rights. It's people who stand up and say they believe in those ideals but have the courage to point out they haven't been delivered on."

AMERICANS WHO TELL THE TRUTH, paintings by Robert Shetterly, will be hanging through Dec. 21 at the Louden Nelson Center, 301 Center St.; the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave.; Downtown Central Branch Library, 224 Church St.; and the Santa Cruz Community Credit Union, 324 Front St. Shetterly will be speaking at a reception Friday, Nov. 16 at 5pm at the Louden Nelson Center.

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