An Ever Expanding Portrait of the American Hero Serves to Inspire & Educate
Exhibit Invites Deep Critical Thinking & Promotes Civic Engagement
An ongoing art project promoting civic engagement and community involvement, Robert Shetterly’s Americans Who Tell the Truth addresses the current participatory decline in civic life by young people. Composed of portraits of significant figures in American history, the project pairs beautifully painted images with poignant quotes highlighting each leader’s significance and reminding us all of the importance of engaging with our community, and playing an active role in current events.
Shetterly, a children’s book illustrator from Maine, has been touring Americans Who Tell the Truth as an exhibit since 2003, and in 2005 published a book including many of the project’s portraits. Centered around Shetterly’s belief in the importance of dissent in democracy, the artist’s goal was to share the themes of community sustainability, obligation to citizenship, and the importance of truth in politics and the media.
Featuring greats like Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, Americans Who Tell the Truth is largely composed of more obscure – but equally important – truth-tellers. The majority of the project’s portraits showcase more unexpected community activists, artists, scientists, and champions of sustainability, equality, tolerance, and social justice. Alongside big names in history, viewers of the exhibit (and readers of the book) will find names like Samantha Smith, Lily Yeh, and Bruce Gagnon (a young peace activist, artist, and community organizer, respectively).
Whether actively used to teach students about the importance of citizenship or shared with children as a more casual topic of interest, Americans Who Tell the Truth is a powerful project with lots of educational potential. Of course, a reading of the book or a look at the project’s online gallery will teach children a little bit about important names in American history, and can help open their eyes to the important of not only major historical figures, but less famous folks of importance, too. Seeing lesser-known activists, advocates, and other change-makers highlighted alongside infamous greats can help children to recognize the power of their own voice, knowledge, and experience. They too, the will learn, can be an important force of change.
Additionally, an exploration of Americans Who Tell the Truth can provide students with the opportunity to explore their own feelings about many important issues relating to social justice. Using quotes relating to racial, socioeconomic, and gender inequality, families can explore their own experiences and beliefs about each issue. Children will practice articulating their own opinions, and will become increasingly aware of the impact that each of these issues has upon their own lives.
Want to take your family’s learning even further? Try making a list of important, influential truth-tellers within your own community. Do a little bit of research to find out more about their background and the things that lead them to become community leaders – what experiences drew them to activism? What gave them the confidence to speak out? How did they realize that the issues they stand for were so important to them? Once you’ve learned about the folks on your list, try showcasing their success in some way – either with portraits and quotes like Robert Shetterly, or in some other meaningful way that highlights their important work.