'America is Immigrants': Illustrator celebrates immigration in new book

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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.

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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.

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"What this is illustrative of is where people are coming from when they're looking at stuff. People are bringing their concerns to what they see, and my concerns were primarily formal, in terms of artistically formal," she said. "So, when confronted with a dozen photographs of somebody, I picked the most legible one. And if you go and look at pictures of Achebe, for example, you will see very different skin tones among the photographs, so it's not actually always clear which is the most accurate."

Her use of watercolor was also a factor, she said.

"I'm building it up in layers. There's always the fear when you're working like that that the next one's going to wreck it, so there's a tendency to stop sooner than ideal because of that fear of overdoing it," she said. "And when I did go back and work some of those, they were always better, but my fear had stopped me from going as far as I probably could have. It never, in a million years, occurred to me that that would be a criticism because I just wasn't thinking of that."

Random House had approached Kolesar about the project, which aimed to highlight immigrants from every country in the world. The publisher was hoping to create a work similar in format to "The Little Book of Feminist Saints" that was written by Julia Pierpont and illustrated by Manjit Thapp. Kolesar had worked on more than 100 books during her career, but many of them were how-tos in knitting, gardening and other subject areas. She had also designed covers for Georgette Heyer reprints.

"The nice thing about those was that I was a huge fan of hers when I was a teenager," Kolesar said.

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During her Scottish youth, Kolesar was always interested in art, but she felt herself pulled into other academic pursuits. After graduating from the University of Oxford with a degree in history, she received a master's in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art in London.

"After two years of looking at other people's painting, I was really wanting to do my own," she said.

She started selling her work in London galleries. At 25, she moved to the U.S. In 1984, she settled in Williamstown after her husband, Jim, took a job at Williams College. Eventually, she began illustrating for Storey Publishing, among other gigs.

"Most artists will have what they call a portfolio career where they're doing a bunch of different things," she said.

"America Is Immigrants" was a welcome creative opportunity for Kolesar, who didn't know Novic before the project and is looking forward to meeting her for the first time during an upcoming Brooklyn reading. (Kolesar spoke at The Williams Bookstore on Oct. 17.) Kolesar appreciates the book's selection of individuals and focus on presentation rather than advocacy.

"Nobody could decide to do this book on this subject at this historical moment and pretend that there was no political aspect to it," she said. "Having said that, I think the author does an excellent job of being apolitical in writing about people. They clearly decided to focus on people who were significant or did something interesting, but I think the stories speak for themselves. Nobody's hammering a point home in a heavy-handed way."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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