WILLIAMSTOWN — Growing up in Edinburgh, Scotland, Alison Kolesar always had a sense that the United States’ dynamism came from its immigrant population. By choice or necessity, these Americans had uprooted their lives and fashioned new ones in a foreign land.
“That was part of what created the energy of the country,” Kolesar said Monday. “In psychological terms, people who have had things always handed to them tend to not go out and make much of a difference in the world.”
The Williamstown artist was sitting on a couch in her home studio on Thomas Street. A box of portraits depicting a host of prominent American immigrants awaited inspection nearby. Even closer was a copy of “America Is Immigrants.” Published on Oct. 15 by Random House, the volume of short biographies and other forms of homage to American immigrants, such as Isabel Allende, Gisele Bundchen, Albert Einstein, Pedro Martinez and Rihanna, features Kolesar’s aforementioned illustrations. Though some sections highlight figures from the arts, sports, politics, science and business via groupings, the majority of the book consists of a simple summary-picture format with words by Sara Novic and a full-page color portrait by Kolesar. The latter used Google to find her reference photos, their variety informing her watercolor, pencil and ink portrayals.
“They weren’t all close-ups just of the face,” she said.
For example, Kolesar presents the Trinidad and Tobago-born Pearl Primus, whom the book notes was once “America’s preeminent performer and scholar of African dance,” at a distance, her hands and legs lifted in motion. Andretti is also set back a bit, his helmet tucked under an arm, a speedway behind the famous driver born in Italy.
The backgrounds were an essential part of Kolesar’s works. In Elie Wiesel’s profile, the stripes surrounding Wiesel evoke the uniforms worn by prisoners during the Holocaust. And in Chinua Achebe’s profile, the covers of some of the late Nigeria native’s books appear behind the author’s head, conveying his literary prowess.
Yet, it’s Achebe’s face in the picture that might draw more attention than his backdrop. On Goodreads, an online book reviewing platform, multiple readers expressed displeasure about the lighter hues used to depict people of color, including Achebe.
“The people of color in this book are depicted as very, very (did I say very?) light-skinned. … These illustrations are a HUGE issue in a book that’s claiming to celebrate America’s diversity,” one commenter wrote.
Both Kolesar and Random House became aware of this criticism and are responding to it.
“We’ve actually gone back, and I’ve altered a whole bunch of the illustrations, which are currently available in the online version and will be available if there’s a reprint,” Kolesar said.
As for why certain figures’ skin tones came out light, Kolesar focused on perspective and process.