George W. Bush’s portraits of America’s immigrants in new Atlanta History Center exhibition

Former President George W. Bush paintings of America's immigrants is on view at the Atlanta History Center through July 4. (C.A. Smith Photography for former President George W. Bush)

The motto which appears in Latin on the Great Seal of the United States is “e Pluribus Unum,” meaning, “out of many, one.” The idea of a unified nation from people of many different backgrounds and beliefs inspired former President George W. Bush to create portraits of America’s immigrants. The paintings are on view in a special exhibition, “Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants,” at the Atlanta History Center through July 4. They also appear in a book of the same name. The Atlanta History Center’s president and CEO Sheffield Hale joined “City Lights” host Lois Reitzes via Zoom along with Laura Collins, director of the Bush Institute-SMU Economic Growth Initiative at the George W. Bush Institute.

Interview highlights:

Artistic meditations on immigrant communities and the policies that affect them:

“Immigration reform is a top priority for [Bush], and at the Bush Institute, we really believe that America benefits from immigration,” said Collins. “But we need an immigration system that really benefits our 21st-century economy and ensures our future prosperity, vitality and security, but it’s a really complicated topic.”

She continued, “Despite the politics and the policy and all of the data, it’s about human beings. And what better way to capture the stories and the contributions of these immigrants than through art, and President Bush painted these portraits as a way to really bring this conversation back to the contributions of these individuals.”

Faces of immigrant America in the collection:

“Each of these portraits is an immigrant that President Bush has come to know,” explained Collins. “When you look at the exhibit, you’ll see some people who are very famous, who it will be very obvious to you how he knows them — people like Dirk Nowitzki, the basketball player from the Dallas Mavericks; people like Madeline Albright or Henry Kissinger; and then you’ll get to see some of the more ordinary people, people like you and me.”

Portraits by former President George W. Bush. (Courtesy of Atlanta History Center)

Reforms President Bush sought, and still seeks, in immigration policy:

“I think when you look at the effort in 2006 to reform our immigration system, it’s not very dissimilar from a lot of the efforts that you see today because we haven’t had a lot of changes in our immigration system in the last 20 to 30 years. And really, everything is geared towards making it an immigration system that works better and also making sure that we’re a secure nation. President Bush likes to say that we can be both a secure nation and a welcoming one at the same time.”

“These are things like making sure that our economy has the workers it needs, making sure our Green Card system is adequate to accommodate the people who want to come here, making sure that we are doing everything we can to make sure our border is secure, we know who’s coming here, and how they’re arriving. And also things like legalization programs, and eventually a path to citizenship for the undocumented.”

The AHC exhibit in a broader conversation about immigration:

“For us, the issue is not any particular immigration policy. The great thing about this exhibit, it’s about the stories of the people on the wall, and those stories are extremely inspiring. It’s really not a policy exhibit,” said Hale. “For us, it’s really, ‘focus on the people.’ And then maybe you’ll have a perspective or a reason to get involved with trying to figure out if the policy is correct, or there should be another policy. We’re not advocating anything in particular … but we’re very excited to be able to share these stories.”

“Out of Many, One: Portraits of America’s Immigrants,” a collection of paintings by former President George W. Bush, is on view at the Atlanta History Center through July 4. Tickets and more information are available here.