Annunciation sculpture was decades in the making
By Jeff Thomas
COLORADO SPRINGS. Since the day more than 20 years ago when the site plan for St. Gabriel the Archangel Church was put to paper, it has included a place reserved for a sculpture devoted to the angel of the Annunciation.
The spot is a natural, perched at the end of the church’s entrance walkway, atop a knob of land that drops away to the south and west, a natural throne with Colorado Springs sprawled at its feet. A dozen miles to the west, at the far shore of a vast gulf of air, is the backdrop of the Front Range, Pikes Peak towering above.
Even though there was never a question as to where an artwork of St. Gabriel would be located on the parish grounds, there was still a question as to when the project would be completed. The answer started to emerge in 2019 — with a Google search.
“It was an internet thing,” said St. Gabriel’s pastor, Father Kirk Slattery, “because I didn’t know how to find an artist.”
Working on a tip from Adam Hermanson at Integration Design Group, the Denver architectural firm that had designed the St. Gabriel church building, Father Slattery put the name of a Fort Collins sculpture foundry into the search box. Hermanson had suggested that Father Slattery take a look at the work the foundry was doing to help St. John XXIII Parish in Fort Collins complete a sculpture of another archangel, Michael.
There is no chance of missing the image or mistaking the message of the completed St. Michael sculpture, now installed at the entrance to St. John XXIII, across the street from the Colorado State University campus. Larger than life-size, sword raised overhead, Michael trounces scattering evil spirits underfoot. It is a violent scene.
Father Slattery was impressed. “Michael was very powerful,” he said, recalling his first look at the model of the sculpture when it popped onto his computer screen. “His battle with Satan, you just sense that in the struggle.” The artistic approach to Michael, he said, “is more realistic than interpretive. You get the story; there’s no trying to figure it out.”
That kind of clarity is what Father Slattery said he was looking for in an artwork to represent Gabriel’s moment of meeting with Mary. “Hail, Full of Grace”: This was no battle, but it was no less dramatic — the divine condescension to meet the human experience face-to-face, and one human’s acceptance of participation in the divine plan. This, Father Slattery said, was not a moment in salvation history to hint at with artistic nuance; it was a moment to portray in the most humanly relatable terms possible.
He made a note of the artist responsible for the St. Michael installation: Herb Mignery. Then he and Hermanson gave the artist a call.
Mignery had grown up on a central Nebraska ranch during World War II. After a tour in the Army, he applied his drawing talents to the catalog illustrations of the products manufactured by his employer. He began sculpting in the 1970s, mostly big, athletic renderings of cowboys, horses and ranch scenes.
“All my life, I focused my work on that — strength, and power, and action,” he said. He and his wife moved to Loveland in 1981 to be closer to the foundries that could enlarge his sculpted clay models into full-size bronze figures. Now, at 82, Mignery was being presented with an invitation to create major installation for St. Gabriel parish at a moment when retirement beckoned.
“I thought, I just don’t know I have the time now to spend on a monument that can take about a year out of your life,” he said. “But I did furnish Father Slattery with an initial sketch of what I thought would work. They did like the sketch.”
A sketch is one thing; a 12-foot bronze statue is another, and Mignery had long since sold his studio and had passed the point where he could carry a project of this size through to final form. So he turned to a long-time collaborator, Dan Glanz at Daniel Glanz Studios, in Loveland.
“Herb contacted me, grabbed me by the ears and pulled me right in,” Glanz said. Working from Mignery’s drawings that communicated the vision of the artwork from several points of view, Glanz sculpted a small conceptual model. When the St. Gabriel team approved it, Glanz built up the model into a larger, 3-foot version. When that got the green light, Glanz’ foundry began the months-long process of scaling it up to full size.
Laser scanners roamed the contours of the model, capturing them as a computer file, which in turn instructed a robotic milling machine to carve a block of plastic foam into a full-sized rendering. The foam model was coated with a skin of clay, which Glanz hand-worked into a refined artistic presentation.
Then thin fins were set into the clay skin, creating a patchwork of fenced segments across the surface of the sculpture. A liquid rubber solution was painted into each fenced section, and when it solidified, a ceramic cast was painted onto the rubber.
The rubber segments, stabilized by the ceramic coating, were peeled off the foam-clay model. Hot wax was painted into the rubber molds. After it hardened, the wax was lifted from the molds. Then a new ceramic coating was painted onto the wax shapes, and when that ceramic hardened, ovens melted and drained away the wax, leaving a rigid ceramic mold, each one the shape of a single section of the sculpture.
Molten bronze was poured into the ceramic molds, and when the bronze cooled, the ceramic cast was chipped off. What was left was a bronze segment of the sculpture. At that point, the welders took over, connecting each piece — about 50 of them in the case of The Annunciation.
“Bronze casting is 2,000, 2,500 years old. But there were no TIG welders, no pneumatic grinders,” Glanz said. Today, he said, “people at the foundry are craftspeople in themselves.”
By November, when a crane lifted the completed sculpture off the flatbed trailer to place it on its concrete pedestal at St. Gabriel Parish, it had been 2½ years since Mignery had showed his drawings to Glanz. In an Advent homily soon afterward, with Gabriel’s raised wings visible through windows opposite the ambo, Father Slattery remarked on how Mignery’s vision, expressed through Glanz’ artistry, captures Gabriel and Mary encountering each other with a mutual respect: The imposing Gabriel above yet his hand seemingly pulled back in reverence; Mary standing tall, confident, her chin up, yet with palms offered upward in submission to God’s invitation.
“They were in some way familiar with each other because of their awareness that they each have a power they carry, of God’s authority,” Father Slattery said later.
That’s a message now visible, 24/7, to everyone, and is part of the whole point of the project, he said. The annual Briarfest event; the erection of a bell tower in 2021; the current construction of a school; and now the placement of the sculpture — each has been one more tangible expression of Catholic life to the wider community.
“A lot of art that is commissioned today maybe doesn’t speak to beauty and holy things,” Father Slattery said. Among the several reasons to create the Annunciation sculpture, he said, is “a re-appreciation of beauty and art. It can speak to us. It can speak to us about the divine.”
(Jeff Thomas is a member of St. Gabriel the Archangel Parish)