‘Angels Unawares’ makes a visit to Napa

by Napa Institute
Published In July 30, 2021

Originally posted by Napa Valley Register:

“Angels Unawares,” a 20-foot bronze sculpture about immigrants and refugees by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz, is on view at Meritage Resort and Hotel in Napa through Sunday.

The sculpture was originally commissioned by Pope Francis, and the first casting of “Angels Unawares” was installed in St. Peter’s Square and unveiled by the pope in September 2019, in observance of the World Day of Migrants and Refugees.

Life-size figures of 140 migrants and refugees are huddled together in a boat in this enormous sculpture, weighing more than three tons. The men, women and children in the boat represent different eras, races, creeds and cultures.

The artist’s second casting of the piece was gifted to The Catholic University in Washington D.C., by an anonymous donor, according to Andrea Trisciuzzi, an associate vice president at the university.

This sculpture left the university in October 2020 to embark on a nationwide tour including stops in Boston, New York City, Atlanta, Miami, New Orleans and San Antonio.

“Angels Unawares,” along with “Common Ground,” a second piece on the theme of immigration, was set up in Napa Commons, 850 Bordeaux Way, at the invitation of Napa Institute, a Catholic organization hosting its 11th annual summer conference July 21-25.

After leaving Napa, “Angels Unawares” will visit Minneapolis and Chicago before being permanently installed on the university campus in Washington, D.C.

“Angels Unawares,” is a reference to the Bible verse, Hebrews 13:2. “Be welcoming to strangers, many have entertained angels unawares.”

“I put everything I had into this piece,” Schmalz said during a phone interview this week. “It took a solid year, waking up at 4 in the morning and stopping at 5 in the evening.”

For more than 25 years Schmalz has been creating commissioned pieces that have been installed throughout the world, including historical churches in Rome and at the Vatican. Though he has created large public monuments for civic entities, most of his work is spiritual in nature, he said.

A Catholic, Schmalz said he embraces the church teachings on immigration, particularly the importance of welcoming the stranger and celebrating the many contributions of migrants and refugees.

The sculptor included angel wings within the sculpture but placed them among the other figures rather than putting them prominently in front of the group, to convey “the idea that there could be angels among the people,” Schmalz said. “The holy family is very discreetly in the boat with the other figures. You can only tell it is Joseph by his carpenter tools. This is a reminder that the infant Christ lived the experience of a refugee.”

He added, “Some of the figures on the boat look back. Most look forward with hope toward the future and a new life.”

Some of the figures were modeled by “actual refugees” who came to his studio, Schmalz said. Many of the figures were based on photographs he obtained from the Ellis Island archives. Others were from early sketches. “We all have ancestors who migrated to North America,” Schmalz said. “I put my German ancestors in.”

Schmalz originally had not included Native Americans in the sculpture until it was pointed out to him that they too had become refugees during the “Trail of Tears.” He changed one of his five Jewish figures into a Cherokee.

“I strive to create epic artwork that connects with viewers through design and details they can view on an emotional level and that allow them to feel a part of it,” Schmalz said.

Schmalz is making a new piece about human trafficking, as a follow-up to “Angels Unawares” that will also go on tour.

“Common Ground,” next to “Angels Unawares, is an exhibit with a series of doors. Behind each door is a big TV screen that plays a short video, supportive of immigrants and suggesting reform of an outdated immigration system.

“’Common Ground’ is a traveling exhibit devoted to the idea that Americans have more in common on immigration than they think,” said Wadi Gaitan, communications director of Stand Together as he observed visitors at the installation.

“Napa is our fifth city,” he added. “We also have an installation in Dallas. Factory 360 is our vendor for the project. They’ve been great in helping bring our (Stand Together) campaign to life.”

Behind door number one, viewers are introduced through a video to three Dreamers: a mental health worker, a youth pastor and a couple who have started their own business.

At the end of this video is the message, “Three in five Americans support both a solution for Dreamers and a more secure border. Source: Harvard University, July 2019.”

“We are receiving a wide range of positive reactions to our messages,” Gaitan said. “Some individuals are moved by the story of Sergeant Peralta who died on the line defending his fellow American soldiers.”

“Others are surprised by how an immigrant family like Farmer Kor’s, who entered the country legally are now being separated because of the age of his kids.”

“Many people begin to share their old immigrant stories with us and the important role that immigration plays in our nation,” he continued. “There is an agreement that our elected officials should work together on this topic.”

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