"Truth Tellers" portrays moments when Robert Shetterly visits schools and libraries across the country and talks to students about the activists he's painted. In this scene, he presents a portrait of Samantha Smith, the Manchester girl who became known as a peace activist after she wrote to the leader of the Soviet Union, Yuri Andropov, in 1982. Credit: Courtesy of Kane-Lewis Productions

Robert Shetterly never planned to dedicate nearly two decades of his life to painting portraits of activists.

But sharing the backgrounds and contributions of the faces in acrylic and quotes etched into plywood have given Shetterly’s life new meaning, the 75-year-old Brooksville-based artist said.

“It’s a problem,” he said last week, laughing. “I don’t know how to stop. As soon as I hear another story, whether it’s from somebody 100 years ago or somebody last week, I often am drawn immediately to them. I want to paint their portrait.”

Portraits from Robert Shetterly’s Americans Who Tell the Truth series. Credit: Courtesy of Kane-Lewis Productions

Shetterly, who hails from Cincinnati, Ohio, and has lived in Hancock County for more than 50 years, has visited venues from sandwich shops to grade-school libraries to share his Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait series. By telling the uplifting stories of 260 activists so far who stood up for racial, social and climate justice, he hopes to spark something within people, a kind of courage and motivation, especially in the young.

Shetterly wants students to realize their power so they can use it to make the world a more just and peaceful place for everyone, he said after a screening of the “Truth Tellers” documentary at Thomas College in Waterville last week.

Robert Shetterly speaks to students following a screening of “Truth Tellers,” which chronicles his art and activism and the lives of American activists he has painted, at Thomas College in Waterville on Wednesday. Credit: Valerie Royzman / BDN

The documentary, by filmmaker Richard Kane, chronicles Shetterly’s process while he grew the Americans Who Tell the Truth project and what it means to be a fearless citizen of a democracy. Shetterly began the portrait series in 2003 as a way to cope with his anger and grief in response to the United States invading Iraq.

“Truth Tellers” featured activists such as Maulian Dana, Penobscot Nation Tribe ambassador, and Zyahna Bryant, an activist who petitioned to have the Robert E. Lee monument in Charlottesville, Virginia, removed. It has been shown at the Camden Film Festival and Virginia Film Festival, with more screenings scheduled for this spring.

“I love the irony of the fact that a white kid like me from Ohio gets his courage from Frederick Douglass and gets his courage from Fannie Lou Hamer or John Lewis,” Shetterly said in the documentary.

Recently, Shetterly has made a point of painting young heroes. For example, he rotated some of the portraits on display at Thomas College and added Amara Ifeji, who demanded change when she realized the culture of racism at Bangor High School. She sees the intersection between systemic racism and environmental degradation and climate change, Shetterly said.

He also painted Jaysa Hunter-Mellers, a girl from Bridgeport, Connecticut, who at 10 years old rallied her community to shut down the coal-fired power plant that was aggravating her asthma.

“Often young people can have a really important voice in social justice,” Shetterly said. “It isn’t [always] adults or somebody who can vote. It’s often the person who is willing to tell the most powerful truth and take some risks while doing it.”

A scene in the documentary “Truth Tellers” depicts artist and educator Robert Shetterly, right, speaking with Zyahna Bryant, activist and founder of the 2016 petition to remove the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia. Bryant is the subject of one of Shetterly’s portraits. Credit: Courtesy of Kane-Lewis Productions

The Americans Who Tell the Truth project leads other efforts geared toward youth, such as Speaking Truth to Youth, a series of video interviews with portrait subjects. Also the Samantha Smith Challenge, an educational program for middle and high schools that teaches students to be part of solving challenges for the common good.

Sometimes students will begin with an idea like getting basketball shoes for their team, said Connie Carter, Americans Who Tell the Truth education director. “Then they listen to Rob tell some of the stories about the portraits, and they’re like, ‘Oh, I need to do more than that,’” she said.

After the “Truth Tellers” screening last week, Maddie Rock, a junior studying psychology and political science, said she admired Shetterly’s outlook of examining one’s feelings about their country and community.

“Just because you’re critical of something, doesn’t mean you don’t love it,” said Rock, who helped coordinate the Diversity Week event. “Being critical of the United States and how we handle certain terrible things and awesome things doesn’t mean we hate being American. It means we’re critical of something that we love and appreciate so dearly.”

Shetterly’s work invokes the idea that America is still a work in progress, said Richard Biffle, who teaches anthropology and education and serves as co-chairperson of the President’s Council on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“This country has a lot of problems with that,” he said. “There’s a certain finalization that these are the laws, these are the standards, values, beliefs. That we are who we are, and it’s not about change, evolution and moving forward.”

Although the fight for justice isn’t always easy to explain to young people, Shetterly’s portrait series is not meant to provide a set of people on pedestals, but rather models of courageous citizenship, he said.

“I love the educational work we do,” he said. “I love the interaction with young people. I love meeting the people that I paint. I love the way this project has given my life a real mission.”

To view Shetterly’s portrait series Americans Who Tell the Truth, visit the website.