In 2006, President George W. Bush addressed the nation on the topic of immigration, saying: “We’re a nation of laws, and we must enforce our laws. We’re also a nation of immigrants, and we must uphold that tradition, which has strengthened our country in so many ways. These are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society and a welcoming society at the same time.”
Bush was never able to implement the large-scale immigration form he wanted as president. He’s still working on that mission, however, now via a different avenue: art. His latest portrait collection Out of Many, One, was released this week, and all of his subjects are immigrants whom Bush has met over the course of his life. Each portrait is accompanied by a short explanation of how the individual came to America. It’s no policy book, eschewing wonkiness to focus on the human side of immigration—a part of the issue that is all too often forgotten as we debate the matter.
Out of Many, One contains 43 Americans’ portraits and stories of immigrating to the United States. These accounts range from those of prominent immigrants like former Secretary of State Madeline Albright and basketball legend Dirk Nowitzki to immigrants who never entered the public eye but whose stories are still just as compelling and evincing of the promise of the American dream—not a dream of wealth or fame, but of stability, of freedom, and of opportunity. These themes are present in every story in the book, as we read about an impoverished Peruvian family, a Christian Chinese dissident, an Iraqi translator from the war on terror, a Vietnamese orphan, and many, many more, all of whom, despite their disparate backgrounds, came to America to find a better life.
These stories are brief—just a few pages each—focusing on the essentials. Accompanied by their portraits, it all feels very intimate. The paintings are in the expressive, loose style Bush has perfected over the years, done in his favored oil paint. There’s an earnestness to his portraits that humanizes the subjects in a way photography may not have been able to, with warm colors and muted backgrounds creating a simplicity that draws us into their faces. It’s easy to think of immigrants in the abstract, as either numbers or props to use for political purposes. Bush manages to avoid doing either, reminding us that above all else these are people with the same desires and motivations as the rest of us.