The upcoming show at the Green Door Gallery (206 Skillman Avenue) will be Betsy Ashton’s Portraits of Immigrants, a multimedia exhibition of seventeen life-size oil paintings, storyboards for each painting, and video. This project of painting individual portraits of refugees and immigrants began as a positive counter-response to the negative discourse on the subject of immigration that was churned up by Donald Trump during his presidential run in 2016. Portraits of Immigrants will open on February 14 from 6 p.m.–9 p.m. The exhibit will continue Fridays (6 p.m.–8 p.m.), and weekends (noon–5 p.m.) through March 8.
“I want everyone to look into their eyes and read their stories. … today’s immigrants have the kind of hope combined with grit, guts, and risk-taking that prior generations — their grandparents and great grandparents — had when they came here.”
– Artist and writer, Betsy Ashton
In November 2006, Betsy Ashton returned to the art career that she had shelved when she began working as a radio and television journalist in Washington, D.C., and later at CBS News in New York City. She was tapped to be a reporter at a national art conference when male reporters teased her about the women’s movement, and she debated them and won. She continued along the journalism path for over twenty years. As for her background in art, in the 70s she studied at The American University in Washington, D.C., and was three credits shy of a masters of fine arts in painting. She also was an illustrator, artist, and art teacher, who sold work in a variety of mediums. Her exhibit Portraits of Immigrants showcases both her talents: the interviews she conducted with her subjects yielded a portrait in words and added an in-depth perspective seen in the portraits she painted.
“The exhibit is my attempt to introduce viewers to real people from a variety of countries and cultures who live in this country today. I want everyone to look into their eyes and read their stories. I think all viewers whose ancestors were not brought here as slaves will find today’s immigrants to have the kind of hope combined with grit, guts, and risk-taking that prior generations — their grandparents and great grandparents — had when they came here. I’m hopeful that viewers and readers will find familiarity in the stories and be able to relate to these newer immigrants as people to welcome, not fear. And those whose ancestors were brought here as slaves will also relate to the incredible survival skills all immigrants have, and how all kinds of hardscrabble labor, including that of their ancestors, built this country from the very beginning,” says Betsy Ashton.
Early in her process, Ashton selected her subjects from those immigrants she knew. Edilson Rigo (from Brazil), ran the espresso bar where she would get cappuccino, and Beata Szpakowicz Kombel (from Poland) is a nurse at her doctor’s office. “Then I wanted to find someone who had crossed the Rio Grande at night to find out why, and someone who was a recent refugee, as well as others I couldn’t find without assistance. I asked friends, churches, and immigration support groups to help me find people, and they did,’ said Ashton.
The journey of Maria Salomé took her across the Rio Grande. She chose to make this trek when she was abandoned by her husband and had to support herself and five children in Guatemala. Ashton was deeply affected by Maria’s story when interviewing her for the portrait. Ashton said, “[Maria conveyed she] could not possibly earn enough money to support them in their home country unless she became a prostitute, which this good woman would not do. It was even more amazing to learn that she would undertake the known danger of traveling alone among a band of strangers to cross the Rio Grande at night, to expect to be raped and hopefully find any kind of work in a strange country, where she didn’t even speak the language, and to spend her life working thousands of miles away — for more than 20 years — to send money home to support those children. It is an unimaginable story for most native-born Americans. But a very real one.”
Most of Ashton’s subjects have documented status, however there is one who is not. “One remains undocumented but says, if deported, she will work in Mexico to teach literacy the same as she does here. I have never used her name nor told where she lives or works. And she’s changed her appearance since she sat for me,” said Ashton.
The first nine portraits were shown at the Long Island City Arts Open Festival in May of 2018. The first more complete exhibit of sixteen Portraits of Immigrants was held at Manhattan’s Saint Thomas Church (on 5th Avenue) in January 2019. The following exhibit was held in March and April of 2019 at The Riverside Church in the City of New York.
After its showing at the Green Door Gallery from February 14 through March 8, future venues for this exhibit will include Darlington Hall at the Church of the Heavenly Rest on Manhattan’s Museum Mile and the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Ashton hopes to keep the show in circulation for as long as possible. “So much damage has been done to the image and understanding of who immigrants are, and so much fear has been stoked by dwelling on the acts of the few, that it will take years to correct. And the only way to do that is to introduce native-born Americans to real immigrants, in this case through paintings and stories that reveal their struggles and hopes and dreams and humanity. People are less inclined to fear what they know and understand,” said Ashton.
Most of us have immigration stories in our family background. Quakers who came over to Philadelphia are on Ashton’s father’s side. “I don’t know their specific stories, but the Quakers weren’t wanted in England. They were shunned and persecuted because they did not worship in the established Church of England. So they were running away from trouble, just like all those are who are coming here today. People don’t leave home and run off to a place where they may not even speak the language, or have job prospects, or family, unless things are really bad at home. But the grit and guts it takes to do that, and risk-taking and survival skills learned and used, are, as I see it, what really made America great.” said Ashton.
Portraits of Immigrants Exhibit at Green Door Gallery at 206 Skillman Avenue (Feb. 14–March 8, Fridays 6 PM–8 PM, Saturdays & Sundays 12 noon–5 PM; Opening Night Feb. 14, 6 PM–9 PM) For more info: www.greendoorgallery.org or www.portraitsofimmigrants.com