“PORTRAITS OF IMMIGRANTS”

Meet an artist who set out to change America’s perception of immigration through stories of tolerance.

 Aired on January 31, 2019.

TRANSCRIPT

> AMERICA, WE ARE A NATION OF IMMIGRANTS, A MELTING POT OF CULTURAL EXCHANGES, A PLACE WHERE IDEAS AND FREEDOM PROSPER.

BUT SINCE THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION, THERE'S BEEN A PALPABLE SHIFT IN PUBLIC OPINION THAT'S GIVEN RISE TO INTOLERANCE AND XENOPHOBIA ACROSS THE COUNTRY.

ONE ARTIST IS NOW HOPING TO CHALLENGE MISCONCEPTIONS ABOUT FOREIGNERS AND RESHAPE OUR PERCEPTION OF WHAT IT TRULY MEANS TO BE AMERICAN.

AS PART OF OUR ONGOING INITIATIVE, 'CHASING THE DREAM,' WHICH TACKLES POVERTY AND OPPORTUNITY IN AMERICA, WE INTRODUCE YOU TO ARTIST BETSY ASHTON, WHO BRINGS TO US PORTRAITS OF IMMIGRANTS, A COLLECTION OF ART INSPIRED BY OUR NATION.

BETSY, WELCOME TO THE PROGRAM.

MY PLEASURE TO BE HERE, JENNA.

THANK YOU.

SO FIRST OF ALL, WHAT DREW YOU TO THIS?

BECAUSE WHAT I WAS SO INTRIGUED BY, AS I SAID IN THE INTRO, IS WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN AMERICAN.

WELL, IT'S -- WHAT HAPPENED WAS, I SPENT THE LAST 11 YEARS ON MY SECOND CAREER DOING PORTRAITS OF THE RICH AND ACCOMPLISHED, AND EARNING MONEY.

IT WAS FUN.

I REMEMBER SEEING PORTRAITS OF THEM.

AND I LOVE PUSHING P ING PAI AROUND, BUT THEN CAME THE ELECTION.

HERE I LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY, WHICH HAS THE GREATEST NUMBER OF FOREIGN BORN PEOPLE THAN ANY ONE ON THE PLANET.

I'M HEARING THIS STUFF COME OUT ABOUT RAPISTS AND MURDERERS AND THESE ARE IMMIGRANTING.

AND I'M SAYING WAIT A MINUTE, THAT'S NOT ANYTHING LIKE THE STORY.

BECAUSE I PROBABLY SEE HUNDREDS OF IMMIGRANTS A DAY.

I LIVE AND WORK AMONG THEM, AND I INTERACT WITH THEM.

AND THAT'S NOT THE STORY.

THE PEOPLE THAT I SEE ARE CONTRIBUTING TO SOCIETY.

AND THIS IS JUST -- THIS IS JUST TRUE.

I LIVE HERE, I SEE THEM, AND IF THERE'S A LITTLE BIT THAT'S PROBLEMATIC, YEAH, IT'S KIND OF LIKE THAT BIT ON MY FINGERNAIL THAT'S GOING TO GET TAKEN OFF.

BUT THE REST OF ME IS THE STORY.

SO I JUST DECIDED -- I WAS ALSO SITTING IN CHURCH, I MUST SAY.

OH.

YOU KNOW THAT BISHOP THAT GAVE THE ROYAL SERMON OVER THERE AT THE WEDDING?

I'M SITTING IN CHUMP AND LEARNING ABOUT GOD IS LOVE, LOVE THY NEIGHBOR, BE KIND TO STRANGERS, AND I'M SAYING, I THINK I'M GOING TO HAVE TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT THIS.

AND ALSO MY JOURNALISM BACKGROUND, I WAS TAUGHT TO SEEK TRUTH, AS MOST JOURNALISTS ARE.

I THINK EVEN STILL TODAY, MOST ARE.

AND I SAID, YOU KNOW, I'VE GOT TO DO THE STORY AS I SEE IT, AND GO OUT.

I'M GOING TO PAINT AND INTERVIEW THE IMMIGRANTS, BEGINNING WITH THE PEOPLE I KNOW.

SO WHEN YOU'RE DOING THESE PORTRAITS, I'M WONDERING WHAT IS IT THAT YOU'RE TRYING TO CAPTURE TO CONVEY?

BECAUSE ONE OF THE THINGS I'VE HEARD A LOT OF PEOPLE SAY IS PART OF THE PROBLEM IS THAT SO MANY DON'T HAVE THAT KIND OF INTIMATE RELATIONSHIP WHERE THEY KNOW PEOPLE WHO ARE FOREIGN BORN IMMIGRANTS IN THE COUNTRY.

SO IT'S A LOT EASIER TO BE AFRAID OF WHAT YOU DON'T KNOW.

SO WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO CAPTURE WITH THESE PORTRAITS?

I'M DOING PORTRAITS THAT ARE LIFE-SIZE, AND THAT YOU'RE LOOKING AT THEM SO THAT PEOPLE CAN WALK INTO THE GALLERY AND COMMUNICATE AND SEE THE SPIRIT.

I REALLY GO FOR THE SPIRIT AND THE CHARACTER AND SOUL OF A PERSON WHEN I PAINT THEM.

FIRST OF ALL, I DO A BIG INTERVIEW AND I'LL TALK TO THEM FOR AS LONG AS IT TAKES TO GET THE BASIC STORY ABOUT THEM, AND I'M SKETCHING AT THE SAME TIME.

I DO LIVE PICTURES AND A BIG PHOTO SHOOT AND I'LL TAKE HUNDREDS OF PHOTOS AND GO BACK AND LOOK AT THE GESTURES AND THINGS THAT SEEM TO BRING OUT THAT PERSON'S CHARACTER.

AND MY WHOLE POINT OF THIS IS I'M TRYING TO DO DIFFERENT PEOPLE FROM COUNTRIES AND CULTURES.

SOME HAVE BEEN HERE 10, 20 YEARS, SOME HAVE JUST ARRIVED.

SO YOU GET A FEEL OF WHO TODAY'S IMMIGRANTS REALLY ARE.

THESE ARE THE PEOPLE, THIS IS WHY THEY CAME HERE, THIS IS WHAT GETTING HERE WAS LIKE AND THE SETTLING IF WAS LIKE, WHICH IN SOME CASES WAS VERY DIFFICULT.

AND WHO THEY ARE, AND WHAT THEY'RE CONTRIBUTING, WHAT THEIR STRUGGLES AND THEIR LOVES AND THEIR BELIEFS, AND I HAVE TO TELL YOU, THE STORIES THAT I'M GETTING ARE AS GOOD AS THE ONES WE CELEBRATE FROM YEARS PAST.

SO DO YOU SEE THIS AS MORE OF A POLITICAL STATEMENT OR MORE ABOUT THE ARTWORK OF THE PORTRAITS?

DOES ONE WEIGH MORE THAN THE OTHER FOR YOU?

IT'S KIND OF SMUSHING IT ALL TOGETHER, BUT IT'S NOT INTENDED TO BE POLITICAL.

I DIDN'T THINK THAT THE STORY OF IMMIGRATION IN AMERICA WAS A TERRIBLY POLITICAL STORY.

I SUPPOSE THERE'S ALWAYS BEEN CASES WHERE IMMIGRANTS HAVE BEEN NOT WELCOMED.

THE IRISH DIDN'T USED TO BE WANTED, AND THE ITALIANS, AND WHATEVER.

YEAH.

AND TODAY, I THINK AMERICANS WHO DON'T LIVE AMONG IMMIGRANTS AS I DO, WILL BE SURPRISED TO FIND OUT TO FIND OUT THAT THEY ARE, IN MANY WAYS, AS AMERICAN AS THEY ARE.

THAT THEY HAVE THE SAME HOPES, SOME OF THEM CAME HERE FOR MORE ECONOMIC OPPORTUNITY, BECAUSE THE COUNTRIES CAME HERE DON'T HAVE IT.

SOME OF THEM REALLY CAME TO HELP THEIR CHILDREN, AND NOT HAVE MORE OPPORTUNITY.

SOME ACTUALLY WERE REFUGEES FLEEING TERRIBLE STRIFE AND ECONOMIC COLLAPSE IN OTHER PLACES.

AND SO THEY WILL FIND THAT -- I THINK TODAY'S IMMIGRANTS ARE THE SAME AS IMMIGRANTS THAT ALWAYS BEEN.

LISTEN, BETSY, THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THE SHOW.

THANK YOU FOR HELPING ME TO BRING IT BEFORE THE PUBLIC.

ABSOLUTELY.

Funders

MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.

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