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Robert is an acclaimed artist and draft resister who risked prison for his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1946, Robert is best known for his portrait series “Americans Who Tell The Truth” which he began as a personal response to the U.S war against Iraq.
He has painted 100s of Americans who he sees as beacons for truth. People like Amy Goodman, Edward Snowden, Joanna Macy, Noam Chomsky and Pete Seeger. Robert has travelled the world as part of the Americans Who Tell The Truth project and he has now started a non-profit organization that encourages students to explore models of courageous citizenship.
I met Robert at the World Fellowship Center, a renowned social justice retreat and conference center in New Hampshire that was founded in 1941 as a place of sanctuary and recreation for people of all religions and races. Robert, who now lives in Maine, shared his fascinating life story with me including incredible stories of the pressures he faced resisting the Vietnam war, the death threats he received as a young teacher in rural West Virginia, his decision to join the back to the land movement and how he became a self-taught artist. Robert spends his time highlighting the courage of others and it was a privilege for me to make time to highlight his courageous journey.
Subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, Stitcher, SoundCloud, YouTube. Full transcript below.
More information about the Love and Courage podcast, other episodes, and sign-up for e-newsletter at www.loveandcourage.org
The Love and Courage podcast
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.
Host Ruairí McKiernan is leading Irish social innovator, campaigner, writer and public speaker. He is the founder of the pioneering SpunOut.ie youth organization, and helped set-up the Uplift and the A Lust For Life non-profits. In 2012 the President of Ireland Michael D Higgins appointed Ruairí to the Council of State, a national constitutional advisory body whose members include all current and former leaders of the country. Ruairí is the recipient of numerous awards, including a Fulbright fellowship, and he contributes regularly to the media on youth, health, community and social justice issues.
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[00:03:28] RM: Robert, thanks so much for joining me on the Love and Courage podcast. We find ourselves here in the World Fellowships Center. And I’d love, to start, if you could tell me about how you found yourself here, and what your relationship with the center is, and how far it goes back.
[00:03:46] RS: I became… I came here, the first time I think is maybe seven or eight years ago. A friend of mine from Maine – my best buddy, a man named Doug Hendrick – called me up one day and said: “I hear Noam Chomsky’s speaking at the World Fellowship Centre in New Hampshire.” I had never actually… I mean, I had read Noam Chomsky, and I had actually painted his portrait as part of the work I do, which is had done from photographs – but I had not met him. I had idolized him. And that’s quite a hike for us, from the coast of Maine. It was about a four-and-a-half- or five-hour drive to get here to hear Chomsky. And so, we came to this place that turned out to be a little funkier than I expected, and they had cleaned out the dining hall to allow for as many people as possible to be here to hear him. And just as, in a kind of tribute, a homage to him, I brought my portrait of him to hang up during the time that he was here. And Andy Davis, who was the head of it then, saw the portrait and suggested that, maybe, the next year I would bring back some more portraits, and they would actually put them up. And that’s the way it happened, then. Afterwards, the next year, they did invite me to come with six or ten portraits, and hang them up for the summer, and then come back myself and give some talks here. And it’s become a regular thing, and it’s become, also, a very important part of my summer. I mean, I… Well, like a lot of people, I imagine, do the thing I do: you never know when to stop. You just… There’s always this feeling, like: “I could be doing more. If I only did a little bit more, maybe things would actually change.” [Laughter]. And so, I come here, and I stop for a bit. It’s fun to meet all the amazing people you meet here, and give a few talks – but really, just to go down to the pond and kayak around, or go on hikes with various people you meet, and relax. It’s a significant and important thing to do.
[00:06:06] RM: Have you always struggled with that, with the need to relax? Have you always been a go-go-go all your life?
[00:06:14] RS: I think I have been a go-go-go person, but it came right out of my childhood. My father, who was a man of some integrity, was also a man who told his children that what counted in your life was not the grade you got, but the effort you put in. So, everything was based on effort. And I, from a very early age, began to try to live that way. In school I worked hard to get good grades, and I tried to work really hard to be a good athlete, and do everything that was expected of me. It was a number of years before I realized that the only problem with that is that I hadn’t taken any time to get to know who I was. I was doing what other people wanted me to do, and working very hard at it. And I began to understand that I had to be doing other things in order to find out who I was. But I never let go of the sense of how important it was to work hard. And so, there’s that nagging Puritan ethic in me, which says: “Work harder. Work harder.” And the truth is, I think I enjoy working hard. I mean, I enjoy taking the time to try to make something of value by working hard on it. I mean, that’s the real thing. It isn’t just for the sake of working hard, it’s for the sake of making something of value – whether it’s in a relationship, or it’s a painting, or a poem. Whatever it is, to really put in the time.
[00:07:51] RM: And you mentioned that idea of getting to know yourself. Around what age did you start to develop an awareness of that?
[00:07:59] RS: That happened in high school, I think. There was a period when… I had been going through all these motions, and achieving. I also lived in the kind of family where you received love based on achievement, not just who you were. And I started to read a lot of literature. I wasn’t interested in art at that time, it was all literature. I read poetry and novels and things. And I was beginning to get this sense that there was a lot more to life, and other people, and myself, than I had any idea of. And I started to write, myself. And I think it was through writing poetry that I began to find a voice – or at least a way of looking inward, which I hadn’t done before. It was all looking outward, and modelling myself on other people’s expectations – and now, I was beginning to look at myself, and through that process, I could face my own insecurities, my own questions, my own confusions about who I might be, and what I might want to really do. And then, some very personal things happened in high school, where there were some really exceptionally brilliant kids in my school who I noticed that the teachers were insecure with. They didn’t… They were too smart for them. And I think they put the teachers on the defensive – and they often participated in a kind of heckling of these kids. And I thought: “Wow, I think I need to take a stand with those boys.” Who were so vulnerable, really – they were not the kind of kids who knew how to stand up for themselves. And by doing that, I separated myself out from the group that had been my peer group. In the process of that, I understood that I had not just the ability to explore myself, but – by acting a certain way in the world, by choosing sides, sometimes – that I could have a significant effect on the way other people might be treated. But I could also… But I was defining myself by doing that, in ways that I had not anticipated at all. Just a simple action of standing up for a couple of kids who I admired and thought were being mistreated, I had defined myself, and to myself, in a way that I was surprised by. But what happens is, you do one thing like that, and then you realize: “Well, there are a hundred other things I could be doing.” And then, you… Each one of those kinds of actions gives you permission to begin to act differently in other aspects of your life. And I think it’s that giving of permission which is the real lesson that I learned at that time.
[00:11:28] RM: Yes, it strikes me that there was, almost, an awakening to a moral code, or a sense of right or wrong, there. Was that something that also ran through your family? A sense of justice?
[00:11:39] GL: It was. My family… My father was a corporate executive, but today you would say that – and, well, probably then, too, if you wanted to – would be highly suspect, in terms of a moral code. But he was a man of great integrity. And I remember, he was still alive in the 1990s when the celebrity salary was really getting rolling in the corporate world. People paying themselves huge amounts of money, and huge bonuses, and becoming multi-multi-millionaires. He was appalled. His sense of being a corporate – you know, a fairly well-paid corporate – person was mostly the responsibility that entailed. How much you then had to give back to your community, because you had been privileged to receive that kind of payment for what you did. And I was very moved by that. As I mentioned earlier, he was a lot about working hard, but he was also about working hard with a set of values that justified your success.
[00:12:58] RM: So, I’m imagining this young Robert with his poetry book in hand – was he part of an emerging beatnik generation? Were you part of a wider movement, do you think, around that time?
[00:13:11] RS: You know, I don’t really know to what extent I was part of something else. At the time, it was very, very personal. I wasn’t aware of a lot of the movements going on in this country. I grew up just outside Cincinnati, in southern Ohio. I wasn’t really aware of the beatniks, I wasn’t aware of, even, I don’t think I was very aware of the beginning of the Vietnam War, and the protests. It became, actually, a huge part of my life shortly after that – but at this point in high school, I was mostly aware of personal achievement in school, and playing sports, and meeting girls, and starting to open up a sensitive side of myself by writing poetry. Things changed a lot, though, for me in… I graduated from high school in 1965. My brother, my older brother, was already in college. And he was… In 1964, he went to Mississippi as part of their Freedom Summer. That was a shock to me – I didn’t know what this was all about. And I was stunned to see the uproar that happened in our house, and in our community, because of his doing that. And that was a huge awakening for me. For him to try to explain what was going on in the world, and what was going on in Mississippi, and why he needed to be part of that – and then the discussions we had around American history, and race, and what our responsibility was to get involved. That opened my ideas, much more than myself as a potential young poet, myself as a person inheriting a legacy of racism in this country, and as a white person having some responsibility to become involved.
[00:15:17] RM: And from there, did you go on to university or college?
[00:15:22] RS: I did. I left Cincinnati in 1965, and went to Harvard. And immediately began to be involved in both civil rights work and then, probably a year or two later, in anti-Vietnam – or peace –work. And so, as much as I was engaged in studying, and having that whole world open up for me – that kind of intellectual world, which was not really part of my upbringing, and was very exciting – was also getting engaged in the big movements of the time. I mean, those were the movements that defined that generation. It’s interesting to me, the way the sixties are now talked about – and were shortly after talked about, as though this were an era of irresponsibility, in a way. The hippies, and the drugs, and the counter-culture – it didn’t seem like that to me. To me, it was… And the people that I was around – even though, obviously, there were a lot of hippies – but the way that they defined themselves, to me, was really in taking responsibility for what the world was, at that time, and trying to change it. And being much more open, emotionally and physically and spiritually, to what the possibilities of being a human might be were a huge part of that. But that wasn’t hedonistic, it wasn’t irresponsible – or it didn’t seem, to me. It was actually trying to discover what the responsibility of each of us is, as a human being, to become a full human being. And I don’t think that we really solve the problems in the world if we haven’t tried to understand what that is. It’s like: the first duty of a teacher should be to help each student become the person that that student could be. Not in terms of becoming a gear in the globalized economy – but you’ll be a successful person, a successful citizen, a successful…anything you do, the more deeply you know your own self. And that should be the first tenet of education: help the kids become themselves, discover who they really are. And in a way, that seemed to be one of the things that was really taking place in the sixties, and was so important – people who had come out of this, actually, very conformist and repressive culture trying to discover: well, who the hell really are we? What does it mean to be a human being? What does it mean to be in relationship with other people, and with the environment? How do we then act? We were inventing that. Which doesn’t, as I said, mean being irresponsible – it means exploration. And that had to happen. And that exploration was coupled with all this awareness of social justice, and how one needed to act in relationship to other people.
[00:18:56] RM: How much of that do you think was a reaction to Vietnam?
[00:19:01] RS: Well, it was a huge part. And Vietnam was this cloud that kept getting darker and darker, and more and more oppressive. I felt, because I was a student – and I don’t know how many people remember the history, exactly – but if you were a student in the United States during those years, you got what was called a 2S deferment. You didn’t have to go fight. And as long as you could stay in school, you could stay out of it. That seemed, to me, a totally immoral privilege. I mean, if a country gets to the place where people are having to not just risk their lives, but risk taking on the burden of killing other human beings for the protection of your society – which is the way it has to be framed – if you’re doing that, why in the world should it only be poor people, or people who can’t afford to go to school, or dropouts, or whatever it is, that have to bear that burden? This should be a burden that everyone takes on equally, or it’s corrupt, it’s immoral. And I couldn’t abide having that deferment. It also turned out that I was…the more I thought about it and studied it, the more opposed I was to the war itself. I mean, it wasn’t just a question of having a deferment while other people fought – it was a question of them fighting in a war that shouldn’t have ever been fought, that was a war of imperialism. And a war of geopolitical gain that nobody should be dying in. So, I turned in my draft card and thought I would go to jail because of it. It meant that much to me. I just couldn’t’ live with myself, otherwise – being in that kind of privileged situation.
[00:21:05] RM: Do you remember the moment of receiving your draft card?
[00:21:09] RS: Well, I remember, I was still in high school when I got my draft card. I didn’t actually, at that moment, I don’t think I was… The world of Vietnam and where it might take me, or what it might ask of me, didn’t seem…it wasn’t present. It was just a thing that 18-year-olds did – you got this card, and it was almost like a rite of passage. You accepted it as: “Oh, now I’m potentially grown up, in a certain sense.” It wasn’t until I got in college, and started really realizing this was about me, and this was about war – and this was an opportunity to take a stand or not, about how I was going to respond to having that card. That was the thing that I became aware of as it went along.
[00:22:03] RM: Did you have friends and family, friends or family, that went to Vietnam?
[00:22:10] RS: In college, I had… I knew people who went. And I didn’t have family who went. That was… But it was so omnipresent – there were people all around, whether I knew them well or not – who were making these choices. And it was a topic of conversation constantly amongst people. You know: “How are you going to deal with this?” And people were making all kinds of decisions, for all kinds of reasons. Some people, it was only: “Why should I let this war interrupt my life? Why don’t I go to Canada, and get away from this?” It wasn’t so much that it might be a bad war, or an unnecessary war, or an immoral or illegal war – it was that: “I don’t want this to have that control over me.” Or… And then, people were doing things like getting a doctor to say that they’re mentally unstable, or they’ve got some injury that… That seemed a bad way out. I mean, this was a war… It was a situation where you had to face it squarely. You had to… The decision had to be ethical, rather than escapist. And that’s what I felt: that the only way to respond to it was to do something like what I did. Either go, or resist. You had to make those kinds of choices – anything else was morally sloppy, I thought [laughter].
[00:23:58] RM: And you did so with the awareness and understanding that that could end up in prison.
[00:24:02] RS: I did. Yes, I had no… I certainly had no idea what that might be like for me. Up to five years in prison, which was the penalty for resisting the draft. But it seemed like, if this war was going to be stopped, it was going to have to be not because poor people were refusing, but because privileged people were refusing. I mean, that’s where the greatest pressure would come down on the government, I thought, was when families like mine got upset about it, and said… It’s like, my father would say: “My son’s in prison – we’ve got to stop this war.” [Laughter].
[00:24:58] RM: So, what happened next? Did you end up in prison?
[00:25:04] RS: No, no, it was interesting – one of the worst days of my life, ever, was when I was… Because as soon as you turn in your draft card, you get classified 1A, which means they’ll take you any time. And then, I was called for induction, and I went to the Boston Navy shipyard for the induction one day, at 5 o’clock in the morning, or whatever they did. These busloads of kids would come in, and then go through the physicals and everything. And the last thing you’d do at the physical is have to sign a loyalty oath. And I refused to sign it. And everybody else went home – and I was the only one, that day, that refused that. And I was not emotionally prepared for what this was going to be like, I had no idea. I just knew I was going to do it. So then, they kept me for hours, grilling me, with these army, navy intelligence people. Alone in a room, being asked all these questions about: “Well, who put you up to this? Why are you doing this?”
[00:26:02] RM: You’re in your early twenties, at this stage, are you?
[00:26:04] RS: No, I was – yes, maybe 19 or 20. 20, maybe. I was not… One, for some reason just physically – it was probably the stress – I had an intense headache. I felt awful. And it just went on, and on, and on. They just kept asking these questions – and it was an interrogation. And I was exhausted by it. But I just was straight with them: nobody had put me up to it, all that kind of stuff. But it was exhausting. And then a few days later, the FBI came to my college dorm room – two agents came to interview me, and ask me the same kinds of questions. I mean, suddenly you’re aware: you take a step like that, and you suddenly realize the power of the state to come down on you pretty hard, and turn up a certain kind of pressure. It’s very easy, at some point, to say: “OK, I’ll do what you want [laughter]. Just stop doing this to me.” And it created enormous consternation around me, with other people that I knew – my roommates, my friends. A lot of people wanting to know what was really going on, here, and why was I doing this? The school newspaper did an article about it, and stuff. And I was… But it’s funny, it’s one of those things where – which is often, I think, the way people get through certain kinds of events, where they have taken a stand – if you’ve done the first action, if you can just hang on, other things will then fall in place. And you can get through it. It’s making that first decision which is the hardest one. “I’m going to do this. I’m going to turn in the draft card.” I had gone down to Yale – [inaudible 00:28:11] was speaking, encouraging people to turn in draft cards. I had turned mine in. There were hundreds of kids there doing it. The moment you do that, you’re with a lot of people – there’s a certain strength and power in that. But all of a sudden – later, when you’ve done it – you’re totally isolated, and it’s all eyes on you, and asking you to respond in a way you had never expected to be dealt with. So, it was fascinating – and very hard, for a while. And then, nothing happened. I mean, I exchanged letters frequently with my draft board, and told them…kept them up to date. I kept trying to send them stuff about the war, and why I didn’t want to go, and what was wrong with it, and why no one should go, and all that stuff. And they ignored me, and I kept sending them stuff. I was just trying to slow it down. I was in no hurry to get into jail – I just wanted to resist. And then, I was graduating from college, and nothing had happened. So I went down to West Virginia with my… I got married right out of college, and we went to West Virginia, taught school in little mountain schools, and then the lottery came… I don’t know if you remember – or anybody remembers – that one of the ways that they dealt with the draft, towards the end of the war, was to give people lottery numbers. And if you had a low lottery number, you could be drafted. If you had a high lottery number, chances are you wouldn’t be. I was given a high number – but it wouldn’t have made any difference, because I was delinquent anyway. But then, they didn’t come after me. I don’t know why. It was strange, the whole thing was strange. But I was not going to commit myself. If they weren’t going to get me… “If they’re not coming, fine.” And I went along with my life.
[00:29:29] RM: Can you tell me about your life in that rural school in West Virginia? And you say you were married at the time, as well? What was life like?
[00:30:09] [Pause]. [00:30:12] RS: West Virginia, in the 1969 and ’70 – rural, mountainous West Virginia, southern West Virginia where I was – there was a… I think, after a couple of months there, I thought that everything else in my life up to this point, in terms of education, had been irrelevant. That I was finally up against a kind of cultural and physical reality which was going to teach me lessons about life, and who I was, and also how I could be…what I could be doing in a situation, that I would have learned in no other way. I mean, whether I was growing up in Ohio, or in Cambridge going to school, compared to the life of people living in the mountains in West Virginia, it seemed unreal – totally unreal. These were… The people I was involved with were what are often called hillbillies. These are Anglo-Saxon people – a lot of them Scots Irish – been there for a long time, often very, very poor, having all kinds of family, and job, and… There’s enormous problems, there. And also, a fascinating culture. But my wife and I, coming from Cambridge, we had no idea what we were getting into, in a sense. We thought that it was a good idea to go up into this area, and then live with the people we were teaching, where we got these jobs. And so, we lived in a little shack up in the mountains. What we didn’t realize is: people in the communities around us, the more well-to-do people, thought that was really suspicious. You know, why would people with good educations come to places like that and live with a bunch of hillbillies? And teach them in school? And the only explanation they had was: well, you had to be a Communist. And so, even though we were trying to be as apolitical as possible – you know, I had short hair, and shaved off my beard, said nothing about politics, and just spent time with kids and their parents – what we didn’t realize was, at the local revival meetings and stuff, they were very shortly preaching that somebody ought to do something about the Commies up in the hills. And that was us. And it… We hadn’t been there too long when we started getting death threats, which escalated to a point – after a year – that our neighbors said we were… It was unsafe for us to be there. And it happened – people came to the house with guns. Which was a very curious confrontation [laughter], which we survived. But anyway, that kind of thing was going on there all the time. But it was so… Do you know the books of Cormac McCarthy, by any chance?
[00:33:33] RM: Yes.
[00:33:35] RS: Some of his early books are set in places like where we were, with just this intense mixture of religiosity, superstition, violence, and ignorance – but machismo, too. And it’s a very curious and volatile mix, and very hard for somebody who likes to think of himself as a rationalist to get into, and understand what the thought patterns are. And people are often talking to you in ways, in a kind of language that, to you, is coded. You don’t really get what they’re saying, or what their intentions are. And it took us a long time to… We never cracked the code, in a way – but we did understand that it was happening, after a while. That there was a kind of communication going on, which we couldn’t read, that was going to come down heavily on us in that situation. And it was fascinating. I remember that time of my life intensely, almost day-by-day, much more than almost anything that’s happened since then. Because it was so startlingly new to me. And there isn’t time, now, to talk about all the details of that, but it was a fascinating time.
[00:35:20] RM: And from there, did you stay in the world of education? It sounds like you had…
[00:35:24] RS: No – what I didn’t tell you in all this was that I… Coming out of college, I had gotten to this point where I – amongst all the other things, the civil rights, and the Vietnam, and everything – what I really wanted to do was be a visual artist. I had studied English Literature, and thought I was going to write and teach. Now, what I wanted to do was draw and paint. And I was… I also thought that acting in the world, like this teaching in West Virginia, was an important thing to do. But I was also… When I had the energy, in between the teaching and the things we were doing, I was starting to draw and paint. In 1970, we left West Virginia and moved to Maine, because I – we – liked being in the country now. We just didn’t like the political climate of the south. And we moved and I did 11 years of the back to the land movement in Maine, living off the grid, raising my two kids, building gardens, building a house, cutting wood, digging clams on the Maine coast to survive. And, by kerosene light at night, teaching myself how to draw. And that became my central passion, for years… What I discovered was that the way into myself was no longer through words – it was through images. And I was fascinated with learning the discipline – which I didn’t seem to have any real aptitude for, it wasn’t like I was a natural artist – the discipline of looking out at the world, and then trying to reproduce it with some aesthetic quality. With lines, at first, just lines – no color, just lines. I loved drawing. And that took years, to get to a place where I thought I was actually sufficient enough, and had developed enough skill, to try to become at least somewhat professional in it. And I began my illustrating for little farm and garden books, drawing pigs, and chickens, and broccoli [laughter]. But it was a way to develop a language, like you would develop, enlarge, your vocabulary to become a poet. I was developing a visual language that, eventually, would allow me to explore who I was as a person through images.
[00:38:06] RM: I’m curious about the back to the land aspect, particularly in the context of talking to friends in New York, or Boston, and also back home in Dublin. It’s now at the point where it’s almost become impossible for many people to live in a city or an urban environment without a lot of hardship and mental stress. And yet, we have these vast swathes of land – particularly in Ireland – that are unoccupied, and rural depopulation, which I know is also happening, still, in parts of Maine. Do you think that notion of “back to the land,” as it was as a movement, could become more relevant again, today? And what was involved in that journey?
[00:38:51] RS: It’s already becoming more relevant in Maine. There was a period, there, were there was this wave of people who came in, in the late ‘60s and ‘70s’, into Maine. I wasn’t even aware of that – and for us, it wasn’t that we were necessarily fleeing urban life. We thought we were doing the logical political step, in a way. That one of the things that was the problem with civil rights, and the problem, particularly more, with Vietnam – the problem with the American political structure – was that it was essentially unrelated to nature. And that re-establishing a relationship with nature was a very political thing to be doing. And so, it wasn’t just because I thought that I would really like the taste of a carrot better if it came out of my own garden. This was a statement to make. Like resisting the draft was a statement, going back to the land was a statement. It was also, for me, a thing about discovering what’s real. I mean, you can grow up in a middle-class environment, probably anywhere in the world, and if you really look at it, you feel: “There’s something slightly unreal about this. I don’t know what it takes to survive in the world.” Here we live in this little, tiny speck in the cosmos – and shouldn’t we know, get as close as we can to reality? What is it where the rubber meets the road? How do you put a roof over your own head? How do you take care of your essential needs yourself? Grow your own food, cut your own wood, put a roof over your head and your family, and care for yourself in the world. And it can be very exhilarating, as well as stressful, as you go through that process. What’s interesting to me… Because that came as a wave, and then it sort of petered out. All those people stayed, and became very important in local cultures, and a lot of them moved out of that lifestyle. At least where I live in Maine, now, it’s all coming back again – with a different intent, though. People are coming back not just as isolated individuals trying to get in some closer relationship with nature, but they’re coming as whole communities of young people, who have skills, and they’re building what we used to call communes, except they’re much better at it than, I think, we were in the ‘60s or ‘70s. Because they have professions. In the town I live in, there’s a group of young people who are making some of the best bread in the world. And they’re also musicians, and they also don’t allow drugs, and they are very focused about the way they shape their lives, about the way they interact with the larger community, the fact that they take responsibility for making enough money to care for their basic needs. And then they do all this cultural stuff in the larger community, really integrating into the full community, rather than isolating themselves from it. It’s another way to do this, that I think a lot of people didn’t recognize in the ‘60s or the ‘70s. And so, it’s very exciting to see that. What’s interesting, I think, in relation to your question, though, is that vast parts of the United States, now, this could be done in. In the Mid-West, say, where property values – unlike in the cities and on the coast – are actually going down. Where jobs have left, and communities are kind of desolate, often – they really need people to come in and reinvent what it means to be a community, reinvent what it means to be “local.” The kinds of things that young people can do in a community, outside large systems that we have developed for the way we live. The food systems, the transportation systems, the education systems, the financial systems – some of these are very hard to fight against, and to interrupt, their size and power. Food, though, is one anybody can take control of, if you are imaginative and willing to work hard. You can actually change that system – and when you change the way we eat, and the way we grow our food, and the way we interact around it, you can change a whole lot about the culture and the politics. And I think that’s something that could be happening on a much larger scale – and probably will happen. But we’ll see.
[00:44:10] RM: So, your resistance to war, and your opposition to war, didn’t end with Vietnam. And nor did American wars end with Vietnam. And I know that the Iraq War, in particular, spurred you into action, and that’s where your “rubber hits the road” in relation to your anti-war position and your painting came together, in what is now your current project. Can you talk to me about that?
[00:44:40] RS: Definitely. I, in that gap between the back to the land, Vietnam and what I do now, I gradually developed a voice as a surrealist print-maker and painter. And actually got to a point where I could support myself and my family making art. And I also thought I was doing… I mean, I think a lot of people, we don’t often think – or we’re not asked to think – whatever profession you choose, what is the cultural significance of that? What is the communital significance? What are the ethics, for instance, of being a plumber, in a society? Or being an electrician, or being a teacher? What does that mean about what is being asked of you, in relation to other people, because of the profession? It’s certainly not asked for many artists. Who are you in relationship to society, because you choose to be an artist? Are you just the outcast who assumes the freedom to make pictures while other people work 8-hour days? For me, it was always important to think about that. To think about: what is my role I’m playing as I’m making these pictures about mystery and ambiguity? And I thought: “Well, what I’m doing is, I’m challenging people to go deeper into their own lives, to use their imaginations and their experience to ask some fundamental questions about who we are as human beings.” That was, really, the primary motive behind what I was referring to as surrealism, was not just to be irresponsibly dreamlike, but to ask significant questions – and use that as the method of getting there. To me, it was like visual poetry, and asking serious questions. In the run-up to the Iraq War, right after 9/11, that all changed for me. It was plain to me, as it should have been to a lot of people, that the government was lying, and the media was going along with it. And it was a crisis for me. I thought: “Either I respond to this with the thing that I do best, which is making images, or I should probably leave this country – because I can’t stand being here, and be alienated and voiceless at this moment. I’ve got to respond in some way.” I didn’t know what to do, though. I was filled with rage, I was filled with grief for all the victims there were going to be, I was… It was a hard time for me. But it took me several months to come up with something which was actually very simple – that I would respond, in terms of art, by surrounding myself with people I admired from this culture. Rather than feel further isolated by just ranting through my art about what was wrong: that these were lies, the policies were immoral, blah blah blah. That instead, I had to use that energy – of all that anger and grief – to do something positive. And what that turned out to be was by painting portraits of people I admired, sort of reattaching myself to the best of this country, and its history. Rather than feeling totally alienated from it. And I wanted to paint the people who had insisted – and it’s been an enormous struggle, and it continues – that the country live up to its professed ideals, rather than live up to the myth of itself. Because the myth of itself is a very dangerous thing – it’s full of [laughter]… We call ourselves a democracy, but the myth of ourselves is all about exceptionality – and the two things are oil and water, they don’t mix. But we keep pretending they do. “We are an exceptional people – we believe in democracy.” Not true. And unfortunately, we are controlled by people who – or the government is controlled, politics are controlled, corporations are controlled – by people who believe in that kind of entitlement, which is anathema to the idea of a democratic republic. [00:49:08 track ends]
[00:00:01] RM: So, can you tell me about how the project has evolved so far, Robert, and perhaps some of the people that you’ve met and painted along the way?
[00:00:09] RS: Sure. I had a little epiphany one day, that I would – it really struck me, I didn’t know exactly where it came from – but it was the answer to what I was looking for, in terms of a way to use the energy of my anger and grief. It was that I would paint 50 portraits – I had never painted a portrait at this point. I would paint 50 portraits, I would call them ‘Americans Who Tell The Truth,’ and then I would give them away. And that last part was… I don’t know why, that just suddenly happened. I just said it to myself: “I’m going to give it all away.” And I think I had a premonition that the people I would paint would be people who had given so much of their lives – sometimes, often, their lives – to the ideals of this country, and freely. They were not being paid to do it. And they would… And so, whatever I did as an artist had to be a metaphor for the lives of those people. So, if I was going to paint Frederick Douglas, I couldn’t sell Frederick Douglas [laughter]. You understand the irony of that – I mean, here’s a man who was a slave. If I was going to paint Susan B Anthony, or Mother Jones, or Jane Adams, I couldn’t sell these people. I couldn’t make their images and sell them – I would have to give them away. And just the idea that I would embark on a project that I actually had no idea how long it would go, or whether I would actually do it or not – but that it would suddenly separate myself from the commerciality around art – made me feel free, for the first time in my life. Totally free. Even though I had tried to be free as a surrealist – now, I thought, I can say whatever I want, I can make the pictures I want to, and no matter what happens, I will be free. And I set out to do that. And I painted Frederick Douglas, I painted Sojourner Truth, I painted Harriet Tubman, I painted all the women from the women’s movement in the 19th Century, and the labor leaders. I began in the 19th Century, and [00:02:35 stumble] iconic figures in American history – although, when you go into schools and the media, you find out that people know very little about these people. Even though they may know the names, they have no idea what they were really up against, what kind of courage they had, how they were treated, what their struggles were, and how much their own lives today depend on what those people did. We’re not taught that – and we’re not taught to even remember that at all. It was fascinating, to me, what I was learning. I was just astounded at the lives of these folks. Because I was reading biographies, and histories, and interviews, and suddenly felt I was on a vertical learning curve in terms of history, and citizenship, and responsibility – and power. So much of it was about power. Who has the power? How do you get power? What is the relationship of money to power? Why is there so much resistance to people living out the ideals that we claim we all embrace? And gradually, after a couple of years of doing this, pretty much in isolation, people started to take notice. And by then, I was actually moving up into the early 20th Century, and I was collecting portrait after portrait after portrait. I think the first couple of years, I painted more than 20 a year. And also doing all the research around the history and the biography. And then, people started to ask me to talk. I never expected that – I just thought I was doing this thing that was important to me, but I didn’t realize the educational potential of it. And then, I started being asked to talk in schools, and talk to community groups, and talk in libraries. And the project began to blossom, and we formed a non-profit so that we could accept donations to keep the project going. And then, people were asking me: “Well, I want to show the pictures in Ohio.” And I live on the coast of Maine, so it means shipping paintings. It was expensive, and how do you afford to do all that? So, we needed to start to raise money. It’s interesting how things like that suddenly develop, and what starts as a very personal statement, and important therapeutic [laughter] process for myself, then becomes an educational project. And I think it’s partly because what was going on in me was going on in millions of other people. You know: “What is this country? How do we live here? Who are the people we should really be listening to at this time? Should we be listening to Howard Zinn more than George Bush?” And each painting, though, I knew – besides the importance of the portrait – what I did to make it very pointed was: I scratched a quote from that person into the surface of the painting. And that was a key part of the idea of Americans Who Tell The Truth, is that these quotes – I thought – were particular truths about who we have been, who we are, what we could be, and why we aren’t what we claim to be. And they were not softballs. I mean, you can throw softballs and call them truth – these were tough. For instance, let me just give you one example: one of the people I painted early on, who was not a 19th Century figure but extremely important to me, was Wendell Berry, who is a poet, novelist, essayist, and farmer from Kentucky. Still alive, he’s in his mid-80s now. One of the great people in the world explaining what a land ethic should be – how we have to be in relationship to the world, and to nature, and to land, if we’re going to survive on this planet. And the quote I put on his painting came from an essay he wrote at the end of what was called the First Gulf War, in 1991, when the US had invaded… Well, Iraq had invaded Kuwait, and then the United States had put together this coalition of countries to kick them out. I mean, that’s a superficial explanation of what happened there. But Wendell Berry wrote this essay at the end of it. He said – and this is what I put on his painting – “the most alarming sign of the state of our country today is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war, but not the courage to tell us to be less greedy, and less wasteful.” If you take a statement like that and, say, talk to high school kids, and ask them: “What’s he talking about? What kind of courage does it take for a leader to sacrifice the lives of young people in war? Is he being sardonic, is he being cynical? What’s he talking about?” And then you say to them: “Well, what kind of courage would it take to less us to be less greedy, and less wasteful? And why has he put these two things together?” Really analyze that statement – it doesn’t take long for any group of high school kids to figure out that there’s a relationship between those two things, and finally, that the reason that leaders don’t have the courage to demand that we be less wasteful, and less greedy, is because of the economy. That we’ve built an economy based on waste and greed, and that the most sacred thing in our society is basically our economy, and keeping it going. That keeping, maintaining, the level of waste and greed that we have to keep it moving – the economy moving. And if that is the most important thing, then sacrificing the lives of your own children to keep it going – having the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people – is secondary. [00:08:48 interference] –
[00:08:53] RS: It was finding quotes like that from people from all areas and walks of our lives – whether it’s around economic issues, environment issues, gender issues, women’s issues, educational issues, workers’ issues, you name it – our society is full of people who’ve had the courage and the perseverance to demand that we see a certain truth about what’s going on, and then live in accordance with that. And, often, staked their lives on doing that. And so, this has been absolutely fascinating for me – to be identifying with some of those people. The thing is, there are millions of them. And then honor them by trying to paint a portrait, and then use the portrait, in turn, for education. And my life, through the process, has been absolutely changed by this. Both the process of the larger part, of just making the portraits and doing the educational work, but the other thing is: meeting the people I’ve painted. I’ve painted, now, over 230 portraits – the goal being 50. It’s an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder at this point, I just can’t stop, because they’re so interesting. I keep hearing about, and meeting people, who are doing amazing things. And some of them have become such great friends that I want to keep doing things with them, which is fascinating. I went to Rwanda with an artist named Lily Yeh to work in a village of survivors of genocide, and use art to rebuilt community. Again, I went with her to Palestine to work in refugee camps in the West Bank, also using art to rebuilt community. [00:10:47 interference].
[00:10:50] RS: I get to spend a lot of time with some of the most courageous people in our culture today, who are whistle-blowers, around all sorts of governmental, intelligence, corporate organizations. And it’s interesting – these are often the people inside organizations, and systems, and government who are, initially, the most patriotic, the most idealistic. And then, when they see corruption, they think that they’ve discovered it, and everybody’s going to want to know, and change because of it. Little did they know that the system, and the people who run the system, know fully well, know very well what’s going on – and they’re profiting by it, and will actually try to crush the whistle-blower when he or she tries to tell what’s really going on. These often turn out to be absolutely fascinating people: about how they stand up to that stress, and how they continue to talk. Anyway, there’s just so many realms of what’s happening today, and people who struggle against it, and people who find community, and meaning, and joy in their lives by doing that work. I think a lot of people think that doing political activism is unfulfilling, tough, driven work – and it’s just the opposite, in a way. It is often very hard, because success is tough. But the communities, people who are involved in the work are wonderful people. And [00:12:41 interference] full of great life, and spirituality, and meaning, and fun [00:12:50 pause].
[00:12:53] RS: One of the people I painted, who was probably one of the best-known – because I’ve discovered that most of the people I paint are not well-known, even the people that should be – is a world figure, Helen Keller. And most people know her as the person who did so much about awakening people to disability, the lives of people with disabilities, and beginning a movement for disability rights. Changed consciousness, you know? She really changed the consciousness of how people think, which is one of the things that everybody wants to do. But anyway, the quote that’s on her painting, I think, is one of the most significant in the whole Americans Who Tell The Truth series, now. And she said: “When you come to think of it, there are no such things – no such things – as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights.” She was basically saying that our Declaration of Independence is wrong. We don’t really have these things. We don’t have these inalienable rights. When she says: “When you come to think of it, there are no such things as divine, immutable, or inalienable rights – rights are things you get when you have the strength to put your claim on them.” That is profound, about what it means to be an agent in a democratic society. That we aren’t just born with these things – we like to think that, but we’re not. We have these rights because we struggle for them. And in one sense, that sounds: “Oh my gosh, I’ve got to work even harder now – we’ve got this big fight.” But no – it’s an enormous opportunity. We know that we can achieve these goals, make sure that not just we have rights, but other people have rights – or at least have the opportunity to have rights – if we have courage. That we can do this. And people have done it, you know? And that’s the great lesson of all these paintings, too: people have done this. We have succeeded in getting more civil rights, in ending Jim Crow, in ending lynching, in giving workers rights, in ending child labor, in giving women rights. These things all happened, and they happened not easily, but with struggle, by people who understood that they would have no rights unless they claimed them. Helen Keller understood that – we all can understand that. If we understand that deeply enough, we can transform this world.
[00:15:45] RM: Robert, thank you so much for this conversation, and for all your incredible work in the world.
[00:15:49] RS: Thank you – I’m just keeping myself alive [laughter].
[00:15:54] RM: Thanks again, Robert.
[00:15:55] RS: Yes, thank you.
The Love and Courage podcast features interviews with inspirational people who are making a real difference in the world today. Guests are typically people passionate about social justice, and who have demonstrated courage and conviction in their lives.