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Some Reflections on the Portrait Exhibit at Syracuse University

Before coming to Syracuse University for the opening of the Americans Who Tell the Truth portrait exhibit, a number of people asked me what it was going to feel like to see all the portraits at once. In retrospect, this question seems like asking a thirteen year old how it will feel to be married, or a medical student how it will feel to save a life. Until the thing actually happens, you can’t know. There is no precise reference point for an unexperienced event. I speculated anyway and said, “I’m sure it will be overwhelming,” …whatever that means. I assumed I would feel pride, the relief of completion (even though the project is not yet complete), and be excited to bask in the recognition of a large visible project. To answer without having had the experience is in a way surreal, at least unreal. Turns out, to have this experience was also surreal.

When someone asks you to predict how a future event will feel, neither the person asking nor the one being questioned knows what is really being asked. In this case, I could not have imagined the cumulative effect of all the portraits. No one close to this project perceived that the collected portraits had taken on a life of their own, established relationships and aesthetics of their own, discovered a voice which was no longer mine at all, but theirs. Only they knew what kind of community and culture they were; only they knew what, together, they could say, could stand for. Realizing this reinforces something I have said all through the process of painting, that I was a medium for each portrait, another way for the subject to speak. But what I had not realized is that they have been building for seventeen years a collective voice that could not have been predicted until they were permitted to congregate in the same place at the same time.

I think of them stacked in my basement all these years. Small groups of them – tribes, delegations, hunting parties – making forays to schools, libraries, and churches – quartets, octets, choruses – not yet knowing they had been contracted to form a symphony. Only they could know, as each new portrait joined their ranks, what was building.

When I first walked into the vast gallery space of Panasci Lounge at Syracuse University and saw them all, I was stunned. The sound of their chorus was deafening. I couldn’t hear it or describe it because I was not expecting a sound. I expected a sensation I could describe in words. I had expected, glibly, to be overwhelmed, but not confused, disoriented, unable to respond, unable to recognize what presence I was in. I was not expecting the roar of their silent voices, an accumulated goodness far greater than my own – in fact, incompatible with me. I thought of John Keats’ poem On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer where he describes his awe at reading Homer for the first time:

…felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when the eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific…

That awe and this awe was not: I did this. It was: They did this. As though I had merely cracked open a door and let all this boisterous crowd into the room, onto the stage. They had been waiting a long time.

Bill Ayers Awtt Portrait

Bill Ayers has described the portraits as paintings of citizens who inhabit a country that does not yet exist. And Bill anoints me as the cartographer of that country. His observation is flattering and maybe partly true – that country does not yet exist. But, the portraits themselves intuit a mapping wisdom far beyond mine. They have been making camp one by one in my basement as agents of a government in exile, a culture of justice in exile. They know their own geography as surely as birds in migration.

I see myself as an assembly line worker cutting out jigsaw puzzle pieces, each piece an eccentric personality, a different arrangement of male and female hollows and knobs which lock them together. But I was never privy to how they would all fit together, the mosaic they would make.

In another respect I see the entire collection as great spreading tree. A tree of life, a tree of justice, which, strangely required 238 seeds to grow it. The first seeds to germinate were Walt Whitman, Frederick Douglass, Chief Joseph, Sojourner Truth, Jane Addams and Harriet Tubman. Harriet continues her offer to lead us all, black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, one by one, out of our own enslavement. She’s the cartographer, not I. She knows where the borders are; she knows when to tell you that you can breathe free.

Walt Whitman Awtt Portrait
Chief Joseph Hinmaton Yalaktit Awtt Portrait
Frederick Douglass Awtt Portrait

But the tree! Growing there in Panasci Lounge. All upward thrust and encompassing embrace, sheltering, challenging, joyous, courageous, demanding. Climb it! Hug it! Go out on a limb. Venture out on quests. Return for sustenance.

Sojourner Truth Awtt Portrait
Moses Harriet Tubman Awtt Portrait
Jane Addams Awtt Portrait

The portrait exhibit is the epitome of the First Amendment – the right of people peaceably to assemble. Look how peaceful they are! How every face shines with integrity and determination. Consider how long they have been waiting for you to notice them, to take stock, to engage them in conversation. This congregation is not without bickering, like a flock of starlings, but they know the tree shelters them all.

Many people have supported and encouraged the long gestation of this project – with suggestions, love, money and important criticisms. All of us were blind, though, to what it was becoming. Maybe that’s true because what it was becoming was not an ideology but a work of art, not the art of each portrait but the combined art of the whole. Perhaps one could say the portraits were like cicadas which spend 17 years in the dark underground as pupae, then emerge simultaneously, crawl up the tree, create the tree as they climb, flex inside their chitinous shells, step free and begin to buzz. That was the sound I heard?

I’m sure some people who see the exhibit ask, “Who did this? It’s obsessive. Over the top. Didn’t he know when to stop?” Upon walking into Panasci Lounge, those were my words too. The obsessiveness is like that of many outsider artists who are propelled not by ego or profit, but by a mysterious internal necessity. Seventeen years ago, when I painted the first portrait, I was 55 years old. Not the same person I am now. And at each ‘now,’ not the same person I was or was to become. So, I’m quite right in saying it was not me who painted the portraits. Someone related, certainly, but how exactly? That may sound coy, but I don’t mean it to be. I look at the portraits and feel an odd distance, as though they may have happened when I was asleep, painted by a dream self. Dream-painted while sleep-walking. Whoever did it, he’s a better person than I.

When I say, “…he’s a better person than I,” I mean that. Reminds me of a time when I was sixteen, I think, and on a beach on Nantucket in August. A business executive, a close friend of my father’s, swam out too far in the rough surf and couldn’t get back. We saw him waving for help. If he had been calling, his shouts were swallowed in the crashing of the waves. I was the only one there capable of helping. I swam out and brought him in. I remember none of the details except that, once back on shore, I wanted to be alone. I didn’t want to be thanked or praised. I walked down the beach and sat by myself. I felt, rightly, that it was not me, not my conscious self or ego, who may have saved a man’s life. Rather, a value was working through me at that moment and it was responsible.

When I began painting, I was both the boy on the beach and the drowning man, a man drowning in the dishonesty of his own country and needing to rescue himself. I played both parts in the same way a person plays both parts in a dream. The boy sets out to save the drowning man. The boy doesn’t have to swim, though, but paint like crazy. Every time he stops painting, the man slips under the waves.

The night before the opening of the exhibit, I visited the space late at night. All but a few of the portraits had been hung. A student named Sabrina, a senior, and I talked. She was walking around reading the quotes on the portraits and told me she intended to read them all. And then she kept saying, “This is insane, this is insane, this is ….” I thought, yes, it is. It is also the most sane thing I could think to do in an insane world. Every portrait has saved my life.

View this inspiring video of the opening event, including remarks by: Sandra Steingraber, Bill Ayers, Mara Sapon-Shevin, Louis Clark, Betty Burkes, Stephen Ritz, Jon Oberg, Joan Gussow, Ann Wright.

Bring Americans Who Tell the Truth (AWTT) original portraits to your community.