Students visiting the Marshall Student Center (MSC) may have noticed the faces of Langston Hughes and Susan B. Anthony peering out from the window of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement (CLCE) office.
The portraits are part of an the exhibit titled Americans Who Tell The Truth, which forms the backbone of LEAD Week, an annual weeklong event that aims to foster excellence in leadership among college students.
This year’s event focuses on truth and its role in leadership, said CLCE director Jennifer Espinola. While LEAD Week will showcase several events centering on this theme, the signature event will be the art exhibit and a lecture by the artist, Robert Shetterly.
The exhibit is largely the result of two years’ worth of work by Espinola. She said she discovered Shetterly’s work two years ago and was so inspired that she became determined to bring the exhibit to USF.
“We wanted to highlight this (exhibit) as a way to start talking about the role of truth in leadership,” she said. “We think that it’s really important that leaders are courageous and speak up for issues that matter to them, regardless of what those issues are. We are trying to inspire our students and faculty to do that.”
The Americans Who Tell The Truth exhibit has been on the road for six years and has a similar aim.
“The portraits are, in a sense, pretty didactic,” Shetterly said. “They look right at you, they tell you what they’re thinking, and basically they’re asking you to do something.”
Shetterly said he created the series of paintings as a response to his grief over Sept. 11 and his distress over the direction in which the leadership at the time was taking America. “I was trying to think of some way that I could engage this moment in a positive way,” he said. “I was very upset — I was angry. I was thinking if I paint just my upset, my anger, my cynicism, no one would pay any attention and it wouldn’t do anyone any good — including me.”
Shutterly said he wanted to be a good citizen and surround himself with portraits of people who he thought upheld the ideals of the country.
His earliest paintings in the series sourced figures from the early 19th century, while more recent paintings present “contemporary people who are fighting all the battles that need to be fought today.”
The pieces each take about a week to paint, Shetterly said, but researching the individual takes much longer. He often visits the subject of the painting if he or she is still alive, and each portrait includes a quote from the individual.
“They’re so lifelike. It’s as if the ghosts of some of the people that he’s painted are standing right there with you,” said Michael Palin, graduate assistant for CLCE. “The words really just kind of echo off the paintings themselves.”
Shetterly said such realism is key.
“To me, it was important that they be pretty realistic, because I wanted to honor the people I was painting and have a good representation of what they looked like,” he said. “I wanted to say, ‘This is a real person with real dignity and real courage and this is what they said.'”
The exhibit cost $3,500 to bring to USF. Because this was beyond CLCE’s budget, USF Women in Leadership and Philanthropy co-sponsored the event.
Shetterly has painted 135 portraits, 20 of which are on display at USF. Five of the paintings are located at the office of the CLCE in Suite 1300. The other 15 are in MSC Room 1504. The paintings will be on display until Friday.
Shetterly will speak Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the MSC Oval Theater, followed by a reception.