Syracuse: Portraits of Courageous Defenders of Social and Environmental Justice at ArtRage Gallery
This article features Government Accountability Project client Dawn Wooten and was originally published here.
Robert Shetterly’s exhibition at the ArtRage Gallery draws from a long-term body of work, his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series. Over the last 20 years, he’s created 265 paintings, portraits of civil-rights activists and community leaders, whistleblowers and environmental-justice advocates.
Some of the portraits have referenced well-known figures such as Abraham Lincoln, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Congressman John Lewis. Many more have depicted lesser-known individuals doing significant work.
The ArtRage show, “Without Courage There Are No Other Virtues,” focuses largely on subjects who don’t have household names but have accomplished much. For example, Jaysa Hunter-Mellers, a 10-year-old child with severe asthma, came to public meetings in Bridgeport, Connecticut to speak out against a coal-fired power plant in that city. She and her mother joined a coalition that successfully lobbied for the plant’s closure. There’s been explosive growth in asthma cases in many cities, with much of it attributed to environmental issues. At 13, she was interviewed for a short film, Words Have Power.
In Syracuse, Clifford Ryan’s son, Duriel Lamar Ryan, was murdered in 1999; he had walked away from an argument and was shot in the back of the head. His father subsequently founded OG’s Against Violence and has spent dozens of hours on street corners imploring people to embrace peaceful solutions to conflict instead of using a gun or knife. Clifford Ryan’s portrait is accompanied by his words: “It’s So Easy To Hate, But So Hard To Love.”
Channapha Khamvongsa, a Lao-American activist, founded Legacies of War, a group that campaigned for the United States government to radically increase funding for the clean-up of bombs and other ordnance in Laos. During the so-called “Secret War,” U.S. planes dropped over 2 million tons of explosives in that nation.
And Dawn Wooten, an LPN nurse at the Irwin County Detention Center in Ocilla, Georgia, was demoted after she criticized inadequate medical care and unnecessary surgery for female immigrants detained at the facility. She later discussed those issues with the media and filed a whistleblower’s complaint. The Department of Homeland Security stopped detaining immigrants at the Irwin County center; Wooten still awaits a final decision on her whistleblower’s case.
In addition, the exhibit presents a portrait of Robin Wall Kimmerer, an author, plant ecologist, and distinguished teaching professor of environmental biology at the College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. She’s an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Native American people, and has written extensively about our relationship to the land and paths to sustainability.
In addition to Shetterly’s solo exhibition with its display of 20 portraits, ArtRage commissioned a local component, 14 profiles celebrating local advocates for earth justice. Lindsey Speer researched and wrote brief biographies, and Marilu Lopez Fretts photographed the activists. Her photos weren’t taken in a studio setting; instead, each person was photographed at a different community site.
That exhibit, mounted in the gallery’s front windows, is both incisive and wide-ranging. It extends from Kitty Burns, a rural homeowner and anti-fracking activist, to Oceanna Fair, who’s active with Families for Lead Freedom Now. Many years ago, lead exposure poisoned her brother.
Beyond that, the window display encompasses Aggie Lane and the late Joanne Stevens, both of whom took part in the Partnership for Onondaga Creek’s campaign against building a sewage plant on Midland Avenue; Vanessa Owens-Chaplin, director of environmental justice projects for the ACLU of New York; Jessica Jeanne Shenandoah of the Eel Clan, the Onondaga Nation. She’s worked extensively on land-claims issues and for the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force.
Shetterly, meanwhile, is showing his portraits not only at ArtRage but also at the Maxwell School of Citizenship, Syracuse University. In a first-floor foyer, a statue of George Washington has long occupied a prominent space, next to an excerpt from the ancient oath of the Athenian city-state. Now, ten prints of the portraits are mounted in close proximity to the statue.
The prints depict a range of subjects: Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass; Eleanor Roosevelt and Susan B. Anthony; Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis and Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan. He’s a human-rights activist, founder of the Haudenosaunee national lacrosse team, and a long-time advocate for a comprehensive response to climate change.
Finally, New Village Press, based in New York City, released Shetterly’s third book on September 20. It combines portraits of environmental advocates and essays by Bill McKibben, Robin Wall Kimmerer, and other writers.
The ArtRage exhibit is on display through Oct. 29 at 505 Hawley Ave., Syracuse. The gallery is open from 2 to 6 p.m. Wednesday through Friday and from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays. Admission is free. For more information, call 315-218-5711 or access www.artragegallery.org.