Column: ‘Truth Tellers’ has a powerful message

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

For the Valley News
Published: 5/22/2022 6:02:24 AM
Modified: 5/22/2022 6:00:29 AM

We’ve seen a lot of careful fact-checking in recent years, but no one seems to know how to protect citizens from the fire hose gush of dishonesty now assaulting all of us on some cable TV outlets and social media. So, filmmaker Richard Kane’s documentary Truth Tellers: Robert Shetterly’s Journey to Uphold Our Founding Ideals is timely. It was screened at Woodstock Town Hall on May 6, and the film has interesting connections to the Upper Valley.

Truth Tellers explores the story of an artist who has devoted 20 years to painting portraits of people noteworthy for telling truths we need to hear: www.truthtellersfilm.com. A portrait of Sojourner Truth appears early in Truth Tellers, and these words of hers are inscribed on her portrait, a method Shetterly uses on others as well: “Now I hears talkin about de Constitution and de rights of man. I comes up and I takes hold of dis Constitution. It looks mighty big, and I feels for my rights, but der aint any dare. Den I says, God, what ails dis Constitution? He says to me, ‘Sojourner, dere is a little weasel in it.’” She is stating a truth some of our contemporaries insist children shouldn’t have to hear in school.

Soon, the film reveals how painting portraits of people like Sojourner Truth became a larger project. Robert Shetterly was difficult to talk with, according to his son Aran, in the days leading up to the Iraq War we began in 2003. He needed to share with everyone his anger about the prospect of beginning more killing in one more unnecessary war. But somehow painting a portrait of Walt Whitman, a poet who did much that was positive in the face of the Civil War, seemed to transform his sense of powerless anger.

The Whitman portrait was the beginning of a project continuing for 20 years, during which Shetterly has painted more than 250 portraits, now available at www.americanswhotellthetruth.org. The accompanying brief biography of Whitman includes a statement that suggests one way the poet’s work might have inspired Shetterly’s painting project: “[Whitman’s] human subjects were not the lofty beings of myth and romance but flesh-and-blood men and women of the humblest kind.”

Among his portraits are leaders as famous as Abraham Lincoln and the Native American Chief Joseph. And there are people as controversial as Edward Snowden, who has been charged by U.S. authorities with revealing intelligence secrets.

But there are many portraits of people less likely to be known — women and men who have talked, written and organized against injustice and corruption. I’m guessing few of the people in these portraits have viewed themselves as heroes.

When truth is in grave danger, it’s heartening to see the faces and read the brief biographies of people who worked hard to advance it and took risks in its service. Bill McKibben, familiar to many in the Upper Valley, has worked tenaciously for more than 30 years to convince anyone willing to read or listen to what he has to say of our need to address climate change. His book The End of Nature (1989) was an early attempt to make climate science accessible to a wide audience.

Like others portrayed by Shetterly, McKibben’s truth-telling can sometimes be hard-hitting. This is apparent in just a few of McKibben’s words among those Shetterly inscribed on his portrait: “America is simultaneously the most professedly Christian of the developed nations and the least Christian in its behavior.”

Those concerned about social and environmental justice are sure to think of people whose portraits might be included in this project. In fact, Shetterly collaborated with Richard Kane, the producer of Truth Tellers, on a beautiful documentary film, I Know a Man … Ashley Bryan (2018), profiling an artist I would choose as a truth teller. I first encountered Ashley Bryan’s art in that film a few years ago, when it was screened at Dartmouth, where Bryan taught from 1974 to 1988.

Ashley Bryan, who died on Feb. 4, 2022, at the age of 98, published in 2019 Infinite Hope: A Black Artist’s Journey from World War II to Peace. It is a surprisingly beautiful book for children and adults about war, although it includes painful truth. My wife and I recently gave it to my brother’s young granddaughter, who has been struggling to comprehend the war in Ukraine. She has been reading it with her mother, and if it helps her to understand something about war, it might also help them both to understand my brother. In 1969, just out of college, he led Marine reconnaissance missions in Vietnam.

If Infinite Hope is timely in this period of a war that threatens to spread across Europe, Truth Tellers provides much support for such hope.

The brief biography accompanying Shetterly’s portrait of playwright Arthur Miller points out that his third major play, The Crucible (1953), which focused on the Salem witch trials of 1692, was a way of indicting the mass hysteria evoked by McCarthyism.

Shetterly adds that The Crucible expressed Miller’s “concern for ordinary people destroyed by a society in the grip of fear,” suggesting a potent link with the powerful fears at work among us today.

In a conversation with musician/storyteller Reggie Harris, one of his portrait subjects, Shetterly mentions a motto he has taken from Arthur Miller: “I think the job of an artist is to remind people of what they have chosen to forget.”

Harris responds: “There’s a combination of telling people what they’ve chosen to forget and what others have chosen for them not to know.”

Taken together, Shetterly’s portraits suggest we live in a world where ordinary people are capable of courageously helping other ordinary people find truth for ourselves. They evoke the great challenge faced by the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol over the next few weeks and months, as they try to help millions of us find common ground in our understanding of the historic insurrection.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at nichols@denison.edu.




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