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Exhibition Honors 'Americans Who Tell the Truth'

Truth-tellers and family members were honored at a reception in Low Library.

Tuesday evening, June 7, 2005, Former NYPD detective Frank Serpico was up against a wall. He was surrounded not by criminals or cops, but by a crowd of over 200 well-wishers who had come out for the reception of a new exhibition currently on view at the Low Library: "Americans Who Tell the Truth." A portrait of Serpico that features his words hangs alongside other outspoken individuals -- including Malcolm X, Langston Hughes and Walt Whitman -- all icons in the struggle to promote truth in American culture, politics and business. The exhibit of portraits by acclaimed Maine artist Robert Shetterly is divided between two historic venues: Low Library and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.

This exhibition of 36 famous American "truth tellers," whose dignity, courage and search for truth have helped shape the United States, was a collaborative project of Community Works, The Harlem Arts Alliance, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine and Columbia University.

The exhibition has traveled to schools, universities and churches across the nation since 2003. Shetterly began painting his Truth Tellers series in the fall of 2001, shortly after 9/11, as away to channel his anger and grief.

Shetterly said, "I was so frustrated by the aftermath, the reporting and what we were being told. I confess that I felt the American people were being lied to and I felt helpless to do anything about it. I wanted to feel better about myself and my country. And so I began to look at our history and saw that, again and again, individuals had made a difference. When I started painting them, I was energized and the whole idea came together. With help from friends and organizations, the project took on a life of its own."

Among the portraits are several Columbia luminaries, including singer Paul Robeson (Law '23), author Zora Neale Hurston ( Barnard College '28) and President Dwight Eisenhower (Univ. Pres. '48-53). During the June 7 th reception, Shetterly and several living truth tellers were honored in person, including Frank Serpico and Judy Wicks, founder of Urban Outfitters. In addition, family members of truth tellers accepted honors on behalf of Ossie Davis, Malcolm X and Paul Robeson, among others.

Artist Robert Shetterly talks with truth-teller with Judy Wicks.

How Frank Serpico joined this illustrious group is something of a story in itself. Serpico's principles and beliefs in the link between truth and justice are hard-wired into his personality. At the reception, he noted, "The truth never changed me. I never made a conscious decision to tell the truth. It just never occurred to me that I should live a lie." This passionate commitment to truth is in Serpico's blood, so it should come as no surprise that a measure of that passion would also emerge in his family. For instance, his nephew, Vincent Serpico (Law '96), knows the truth when he sees it.

One evening two years ago, Vincent came across a unique Web site devoted to truth: www.americanswhotellthetruth.org. This Web site documented the work of artist Robert Shetterly. Vincent realized immediately that his Uncle Frank shared the same devotion to truth as many of the portrait subjects. Frank Serpico also had shared in the struggle against injustice in a very real and physical way, as had Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. Serpico's testimony against police corruption in New York City in the early 1970s almost got him killed. Not only did he refuse to participate in graft with his fellow NYPD officers, Serpico publicly testified against the NYPD at hearings in one of the most notorious police graft and payoff scandals of the period. Shortly afterward, he was shot in the face during a botched drug bust. Serpico and others believe he was set up by fellow officers because of his testimony -- for his truth-telling.

Of Serpico, Robert Shetterly said, "He has a great energy and I was really grateful to have several living 'truth tellers' as part of this series. With the inclusion of Frank and others, I'm now way beyond my original goal of 50 portraits. I have learned so much about our country and about these people's stories in the process. That's what I hope to share with the audience. These portraits are intended to create dialogue about truth-telling and what we value most in a democracy."

Frank Serpico stands in front of his own portrait.

To bring Shetterly's exhibition to New York City, Community Works and the Harlem Arts Alliance partnered with Columbia University and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Community Works is a leading nonprofit arts education organization with locations in Harlem and Midtown Manhattan, which serves 150,000 youth and community members a year through its major public art exhibitions, public events, multi-cultural performances and workshops. The Harlem Art Alliance is a 400-member service organization dedicated to preserving, promoting, sponsoring and presenting the rich cultural programs of Harlem's multi-ethnic and multi-cultural artists and arts organizations.

At Low Library, Shetterly conducted workshops about the "truth tellers" with several groups of schoolchildren from across the City. Katrina Gamble, and 8 th grade student from I.S. 286, said, "These paintings made me really think about truth, freedom and work. Back in the days of slavery, our people were put to hard work. They did not have choices or freedom, and their truth was denied. But now we do have choices, but sometimes we take that for granted. We have a lot of freedom and truth, but we don't always appreciate it."

Malaak Shabazz studies the portrait of her father, Malcolm X.

Shetterly's favorite quote also came from a child, a six-year-old named Iris, who told him, "This [exhibit] is so exciting! You remember everything that children know." With encouraging input like that, along with the help of educators and friends, including former U.S. diplomatic officer Robert Sargent, Shetterly has produced a book documenting the portrait series (available at the Columbia Bookstore) and is now collaborating on a social studies/history curriculum for high schools.

The exhibition, "Americans Who Tell the Truth," is free, open to the public and continues until July 27 at both the Low Library and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Viewing hours are Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Published: Jun 23, 2005
Last modified: Jun 23, 2005

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