With ‘Portraits of Immigrants,’ AU alumna uses art to tell immigrant stories
Betsy Ashton’s portraits have been shown in galleries and churches across the country
Immigration policy has been at the center of heated political debates throughout the past year, including outrage over the Trump administration’s now-defunct policy of separating immigrant families at the U.S.-Mexico border. Now, an American University alumna is putting immigration at the center of her art.
Betsy Ashton graduated from AU in 1966 with a degree in art. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, she began to create a series of portraits of undocumented and documented immigrants to shed a more positive light on a group, titling the series “Portraits of Immigrants.”
“The reason I did this to begin with was hearing the horrible things said about immigrants and here, living among immigrants and working among immigrants, I just said, ‘that's not the story,’” Ashton said.
In her Queens, New York studio, Ashton has completed 11 of what will be a total of 18 life-sized portraits, accompanied with stories about how each immigrant overcame obstacles to create successful lives in America and contribute to their communities.
Aston hopes to display her series across the country and has been exhibited already in a variety of venues, including galleries and churches. Her art was scheduled to be shown at Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis, the same church that early last month placed the nativity scene in a caged enclosure on its front lawn in protest of the family separation policy. But after church officials were verbally attacked by protesters, Ashton’s show was canceled because the cost of church security would be too high.
Ashton combines her skills as an artist with decades of experience as a journalist in “Portraits of Immigrants.” Her current profession brings her full-circle from her studies at AU. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in art, she worked as an illustrator, art teacher and was three credits shy of her master’s degree at AU when she decided art was becoming too avant-garde and it was not something she wanted to do.
“I was always interested in people, I was always interested in painting people, and I just didn’t see a future,” she said. “I didn’t want to beat my head against the wall going against the grain.”
After pursuing a suggestion about starting a TV program teaching art, Ashton contacted different program directors at Washington, D.C. broadcast stations and was hired by one. Shortly after, she was offered a job as a radio journalist and spent 20 years in reporting and anchoring positions at television stations in the district and New York City, before shifting her focus back to painting 12 years ago.
For this project, Ashton asked immigrants if she could paint their picture, which is something she doesn’t typically do. Usually, clients come to her for portraits. Ashton asked for help finding subjects through friends, churches and immigrant aid groups.
“Initially when I started doing these portraits, all I did was look around me,” Ashton said. “There’s so many people right here who are immigrants from all over the world that all I had to do was ask.”
Among the portraits is one of Maria Salomé, an immigrant from Guatemala who, to support her family, had to choose between becoming a prostitute or finding someone to help her cross the border and find work in the U.S.
Another is a painting of John Lam, a Chinese immigrant who began washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant at 17 years old. He then found employment at a garment factory, working up the ranks until he became supervisor and made enough money to purchase another factory. Lam later became one of the biggest employers in New York’s Chinatown.
“To me, they all have fascinating stories,” Ashton said. “What [the] ‘Portraits of Immigrants’ exhibition is doing is an attempt to simply show the American people this is what the immigrants really are. This is who today's immigrants are.”