Visual Culture
A New Statue of Liberty Will Be Built on the U.S.–Mexico Border
Artist Jim Bliesner with a 4-foot metal model of Welcome the Stranger. Courtesy of the San Diego Organizing Project.

Artist Jim Bliesner with a 4-foot metal model of Welcome the Stranger. Courtesy of the San Diego Organizing Project.

This past Friday, the first of a series of grassroots events began to crowdfund an ambitious project: a reimagining of the Statue of Liberty, erected near the U.S.–Mexico border, visible for miles as a symbol of compassion. The campaign kicked off with an art installation at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in the San Ysidro neighborhood of San Diego, California, which overlooks the border. Residents gathered to write the names of loved ones who had been affected by U.S. immigration policy on ribbons, and tie them to a fence. The installation was planned by the San Diego Organizing Project (SDOP), which comprises 31 faith-based congregations.
Though the word “crowdfunding” only entered our vernacular in 2006, the original Statue of Liberty’s history was actually an early example of sourcing funds from the general public. While the statue itself was a gift from France, the U.S. government failed to fund the base upon which it would stand. In 1884, publisher Joseph J. Pulitzer put out a notice for a fundraiser to pay for the base. It’s estimated that up to 160,000 people donated, three-quarters of whom contributed less than a dollar.
Nearly a century and a half later, this community in California hopes to accomplish a similar feat. The idea for a monument was suggested by churchgoers at Our Lady of Mount Carmel in hopes of starting a meaningful initiative in this time of turmoil, as America enters its sixth month under a zero-tolerance immigration policy that impacts migrants and asylum-seekers alike. It was important for the design to come from the immigrant community, so SDOP tasked artist Jim Bliesner with conceptualizing the monument based on the ideas of local residents.
3D rendering of Welcome the Stranger. Courtesy of Michael Ojeda.

3D rendering of Welcome the Stranger. Courtesy of Michael Ojeda.

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.”
Jacqui Palumbo is Artsy’s Visual Culture Editor.