Between COVID-19 and Trump’s Big Lie, America is in serious trouble. Red versus Blue, Republicans versus Democrats, conservatives versus liberals, MAGA versus BLM.
Americans are battling over everything from vaccines and mask mandates to voting rights, police violence, reproductive choice, and Supreme Court nominees.
Everyone seems to be in one camp or the other and artists, being progressive and creative by nature, tend to back Democrats and liberal causes.
But I find myself increasingly drawn to artists who seek to transcend the categories, to bridge the ideological gap with a higher consciousness. To that end, I recently spoke with artists Charlie Hewitt, Rob Shetterly, Alan Magee, Lesley Dill, and Daniel Minter.
Hewitt, of Yarmouth and Jersey City, New Jersey, is well known in Maine and New York for expressionist abstractions that speak in a language of the working class – saws, hammers, nails, ropes, etc.
But most recently Hewitt has attracted a lot of attention with his “Hopeful Project” signs of illuminated parti-colored aluminum.
Hewitt’s campaign began in 2019 with a sign atop Speedwell Projects in Portland and has since spread to Bangor, Brunswick, Lewiston, and Yarmouth, Maine; Jersey City, Fairfield, and Newark, New Jersey; Greenwich, Connecticut; Easton, Maryland, and New York City as well as to two dozen private collections.
Hewitt sees his “Hopeful Project” as an upbeat, positive way to reach across the political divide.
“I’m tired of clutching my pearls and being shocked at what the other side does,” he said. “I’ve cast my net in kinder seas and the bounty is very rich.”
People all along the political spectrum can identify with the “Hopeful” sentiment and respond well to Hewitt’s message. He is convinced that he came up with the right word at the right time in the right place.
“’Hopeful’ can only be incubated in a place like Maine,” he said. “We see each other. We rely on one another. We care about one another.”
Shetterly, of Brooksville, has painted more than 250 portraits since he started his Americans Who Tell the Truth series in 2002 in response to America’s impending invasion of Iraq. Most of Shetterly’s truth-tellers are heroes of the left: peace activists, civil rights leaders, environmentalists, whistleblowers.
Shetterly’s current focus is a forthcoming book of portraits of individuals who have worked on behalf of “Earth Justice.”
“Nothing substantive has been done about climate change,” Shetterly said. “If that’s not getting better, nothing is getting better.”
Shetterly presents Americans Who Tell the Truth to students all over the country. When it comes to issues of environmental destruction, he finds that young people understand all too well what the problems are and are deeply troubled by climate change. What they often don’t know is what they can do about it.
Shetterly’s gallery of “Earth Justice” warriors range from national figures such as Aldo Leopold and Bill McKibben to local activists like retired Bowdoin College professor John Rensenbrink, co-founder of the Green Party, and state Sen. Chloe Maxmin, D-Nobleboro, founder of the Climate Action Club.
“When students are aware of what people are doing,” Shetterly said, “they become inspired, empowered, hopeful.”
There’s that word again.
Magee, of Cushing, became famous for his super-realist stones and still-life paintings of discrete objects such as firecrackers, auto parts, bones, and paint tubes.
The dark side of Magee’s psyche emerged when he began creating disturbing monotype portraits of demonic figures and then damaged, doll-like sculptures inspired by war and violence.
There is a clear dichotomy in Magee’s work between the conventionally beautiful paintings and the distorted and deformed faces and figures.
Recently, however, Magee seems to have found a way to marry the beautiful and the damned. His large-scale paintings of metal helmets reflect both a lifelong fascination with armor and the personal horror of war.
Magee describes the helmets as “the artistry of violence” and locates them “somewhere in the middle” between his stones and his monotypes. He is well aware that destructive forces have operated within most cultures throughout history, but he finds the dissension and division within contemporary American society upsetting.
“There is something new going on,” he said. “I never before felt there were neighbors or family I couldn’t talk to about some things.”
Perhaps that is why artists are seeking to subvert the taboo with a visual vocabulary of fine words, elegant portraits, beautiful paintings of the implements of war, and, in the case of Lesley Dill, a visionary wardrobe of spiritual effigies.
Dill is a New York artist who grew up in Falmouth and graduated from Waynflete School in Portland. Her “Wilderness: Light Sizzles Around Me” at the Bates College Museum of Art consists of more than a dozen 8-foot portraits of visionary Americans in the form of hanging costumes covered with the subject’s words.
Four of the Americans featured are the same historical figures Rob Shetterly portrays: Sojourner Truth, Dred Scott, John Brown, and Walt Whitman.
Dill’s Sojourner Truth wears the brave, bold words, “Aren’t I a woman?” emblazoned on her blue dress, a telling query from a woman who was once forced to bare her breasts to answer that very question.
As President Joe Biden prepares to name the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, Dill’s evocation of Sojourner Truth celebrates how far women of color have come.
“These times are a time of celebration,” she insisted. “I see Black Lives Matter parades right under my window. We are at the wonderful pivot point where we are moving away from white male patriarchy. Not fast enough, but it is happening.”
Minter, of Portland, is the co-founder of the Indigo Arts Alliance, which supports Black and Brown artists. After the deaths of David Driskell and Ashley Bryan, he has become Maine’s best-known Black artist.
Minter’s art celebrates African-American culture and the history of injustice Black people have endured. His “A Narrowing of Possibilities” is a wood, acrylic-painted relief with carvings, fabric, etched copper, and a vintage drinking fountain. The dominant image appears to be the back of the late U.S. Rep. John Lewis’s head. The drinking fountain speaks to the era of segregation and images surrounding the head portray infamous acts of police violence against Black men.
“A Narrowing of Possibilities” is timely in that the U.S. Senate recently failed to pass the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. Minter sounds discouraged when he talks about the failures of American political will, but he is also resolute in defiance.
“We can do something about us,” he said. “We can make our personal selves better even in the face of climate catastrophe and disaster. Indigenous people and African-Americans have been doing that for a very long time – making ourselves better even though there seem to be insurmountable odds. Just look at last week: the voting rights bill failed. It’s almost unimaginable. A bill to increase the ability of people to vote failed. Yet it did.”
And so artists of conscience everywhere are committing themselves to affirm the right, the good, the just, and, yes, the hopeful.
Edgar Allen Beem has written about art in Maine since 1978.