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Faces of Courage: Artist gives immigrants high profile on canvas

Betsy Ashton stands in her New York studio with several of her immigrant portraits.
Photo/Steven Speliotis

By Pamela A. Lewis

“Anger” is not the word that comes to mind when looking at Betsy Ashton’s portraits, which include those of prominent figures such as actor Hal Holbrook and Philip Lader, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The walls of her sunlit New York studio are lined with her paintings, from which serene and pensive faces meet the viewer’s gaze.

Yet Ashton asserts that anger inspired her to paint what eventually will become 18 lifesized portraits of immigrants. She has worked on the project, titled “Portraits of Immigrants: Unknown Faces, Untold Stories,” since shortly after the 2016 presidential election.
“I was so angered by the maligning of immigrants and refugees … which continues to this day, that I felt compelled to seek out immigrants, paint them and tell their stories,” she said. “They are not a threat to America, but an asset; they need to be seen and heard.”

Once completed, the portraits will represent a cross-section of documented and undocumented immigrants of different ages, countries and cultures who presently live and work in New York. Ashton uses paint and brushes to tell the story of these latest arrivals to the city.

Proudly cradling a magnificent loaf of bread, Edilson “Eddie” Rigo, for example, smiles warmly from the canvas. Violent robberies forced him and his Italian parents from their native São Paulo, Brazil, and eventually from the country itself to seek better employment. Following a series of successes and failures, Rigo opened an espresso bar in a customer’s building, where he makes, Ashton says, the the best coffee, soups, salads and sandwiches in Long Island City, Queens, N.Y. (where her studio is located). Rigo calls America “the best place in the world,” citing its safety and vibrant cultural life.

Ashton’s personal and professional journeys have been almost as circuitous as those of the immigrant men and women whose likenesses she has captured on canvas. Born in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and reared in central New Jersey, from childhood she always “made up stories and drew pictures.”

She studied art but quit three credits shy of a master of fine arts in painting. She gained experience as an illustrator and as an art teacher for three years in a tony school district in Fairfax, Va.

“I wanted to do my own art,” she said. “But I soon became aware that the art world [of the late 1960s and early ’70s] didn’t like what I liked. It was interested in nonfigurative art, such as by Jean Davis [known for his masking tape-created stripes]. That didn’t speak to me; I’m a story teller.”

Nicholas Freeman, then-FCC Chairman, suggested Ashton assemble art-related projects that could be aired on television. She created a program for the show “Panorama,” teaching art once a week for $50. She was later tapped to do radio reports on the burgeoning women’s movement, for which she interviewed her subjects about equal pay for equal work and the emerging use of “Ms.”

Ashton then moved to reporting and anchoring radio and television news, first in Washington, D.C., and later at CBS News in New York. In 1977, she returned to Washington and was assigned to cover the courts for WJLA-TV, becoming the only TV reporter to draw her own courtroom sketches while covering trials.

Twelve years ago, she resumed painting at the encouragement of painter Everett Raymond Kinstler, who became her mentor. She also studied with Sharon Sprung and Mary Beth McKenzie at the National Academy School in New York. After two years, she opened a studio and began painting portraits on commission.

Concerning her current project, Ashton, who is Episcopalian, said she had no doubt that God suggested she paint the portraits of these immigrants who can’t afford to commission them. This is her way, she said, to “counter negativity and divisive thought.”

“I am not motivated by money, but have been willing to give up the income to do something right. I lived in wealth but am happier now,” she said. “I went to church but was not really ‘there.’ I was interested in the next big story. But I’ve gone back to the Lord.”

Ashton has asked friends, fellow parishioners and immigrant-aid groups to help find immigrants willing to pose. Some declined out of fear of deportation, she said. “I’ve changed names and omitted details that could cause harm to the undocumented, and have offered to paint them in shadow.”

Ashton sketches and photographs each person before painting. Her style reflects her favorite artists, “the brushy realists” such as John Singer Sargent, Diego Velázquez and Anthony van Dyck, she said. “Their deep beauty and humanity speak to me, because I want a human connection.”

Among her subjects is Maria Salomé, whose erect bearing belies her harrowing story of leaving Guatemala after her husband abandoned her and their five children, ages 3 to 16. She had two choices: becoming a prostitute or hiring a “coyote” to sneak her into the United States.

Unwilling to do “indecent work,” Salomé made a “very scary journey” through Mexico until a bus picked up her group and brought them to New York, where, soon after, she was hired as a housekeeper. She sent home money to feed her children for 24 years before obtaining a green card, allowing her to return to Guatemala to visit them. “I have a good life here,” she says. “This is a good country. This is my home.”

Having just graduated high school, and speaking only Creole and French, Porez Luxama came here with his mother and siblings following a coup d’état in their native Haiti. He now teaches math and science in a New York junior high school and runs the Life of Hope Center in Brooklyn, which helps new immigrants learn language, literacy, job and leadership skills.

The 18 portraits (which Diego Salazar, himself an immigrant from a poor family in Bogatà, Colombia, and one of Ashton’s subjects, has been framing) will be on exhibition at Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue, New York, from Jan. 19 through Feb. 16, 2019. Other churches and secular venues have expressed interest in the series.

“I want people who see these portraits to empathize with the sitters and to appreciate how hard they work and how grateful they are,” Ashton said. “I believe that viewers will discover kindred spirits’ who are, in many ways, as ‘American’ as they are.”

Pamela A. Lewis, who is based in NewYork, writes on topics of faith.

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