Bliesner is a sculptor and painter who specializes in community-engaged art, and teaches urban economic development and design. In 1997, he worked with residents of Popotla, in Baja California, to “beautify
” the wall around the studio that 20th Century Fox built in their small fishing town to save costs on the production of the blockbuster Titanic
(1997). In 2000, during the Havana Biennial, he worked on a project to build furniture for a public park out of found items sourced by local children.
As with his previous projects, the brainstorming stage began with hearing what the community had to say. It was important to start with “a listening process that allowed people to express their emotions—not just their ideas about what the sculpture should look like, but how they [felt] about the issue,” he said. Bliesner, in collaboration with art therapist and muralist Berenice Badillo, organized a session for 100 residents, who sat together in groups of eight to discuss and sketch.
Together, they conceptualized Welcome the Stranger, a 40-foot-tall monument of the Virgin Mary as the Statue of Liberty, one arm outstretched to those seeking shelter. Mary was selected, according to SDOP, because she herself was a refugee, as well as “a symbol of hope and faith.” Her robe, comprised of a series of abstract shapes that form a turbulent landscape, is based on the “tumultuous” universal experience of all migrants, whether they’re from Mexico, Syria, or Myanmar. In the folds, there are blocks of color, symbolizing moments of respite during a difficult journey. The sculpture, once realized out of perforated aluminum, will light up at night.
The monument, which will be erected in the parking lot of the church, will stand atop a plaza co-designed by Jose Parral. Bliesner hopes the plaza, located on a hilltop overlooking the border, will become “a place of meditation.” The goal is for both the monument and plaza to be erected by January 2019. “I’m hoping that it provokes dialogue…and I hope that it reminds people that migrants are human beings,” Bliesner said. “National policy ought to have that as its first consideration.”