Renowned Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz’s newest creation is called Residential School and crafts a classroom with a lone Indigenous girl sitting at one of 14 desks — representing Canada, each province and territory — resting her head with a feather in her hand. The recent revelations of unmarked graves at former residential schools has brought plenty of destruction, but Schmalz said his work aims to build up. Photos courtesy of Timothy Schmalz

Schmalz builds as others tear down

By 
  • July 15, 2021

As the statues fall across the nation, there is little positive sculptor Timothy Schmalz can glean from the anger and destruction.

Egerton Ryerson, John A. Macdonald, Queens Victoria and Elizabeth have all felt the wrath of crowds upset with Canada’s residential school legacy as their own legacies are diminished for their perceived roles in the system. The anger has bubbled to the surface with the discovery of over 1,100 unmarked grave sites at former residential schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, with more sure to come.

“There seems to be such an inclination for destruction in our country right now,” said Schmalz, the renowned Catholic artist from St. Jacob’s, Ont. “It is kind of human nature in a way when you have an abundant amount of energy, and you don’t know how to express it, it usually becomes a destructive event of energy.”

Rather than tearing down, Schmalz is a firm believer in building up.

“Where I can help as a Catholic sculptor is to bring in new symbols that can be used in a positive manner,” he said. “It is one thing to say something in words, it is another to say something with artwork. Since art is open to interpretation, it has a powerful effect on a culture, on a society and a people.”

Indeed, Schmalz has fashioned a possible solution. The prolific artist diverted focus from his current artistic slate to cast a sculptural model called Residential School. He began to sculpt the prototype on Canada Day, a Thursday, and he kept pouring his energy into finishing the original design of his artistic tribute until it was complete by Sunday night. It’s now being molded into the finished product.

Schmalz crafted a residential school classroom with each desk representing Canada and one of its 10 provinces and three territories. A lone Indigenous girl sits at one of the desks with the side of her head and one of her hands resting on top of the desk. She holds a feather in her other hand next to her skirt.

“I think the little girl being surrounded by all these empty desks is a simple, but powerful message,” said Schmalz. “The child has her head bowed on the desk almost hiding from the situation at the school. It also looks like she is passing a secret note — in this case a feather — to another student, which is symbolic of her ancestry and culture.”

Schmalz contemplated a classroom full of kids, but ultimately felt he could better illustrate the fearful, solitary and sorrowful nature of these institutions more effectively with one student.

It’s his hope to install a full-sized sculpture on the grounds of a Catholic parish in each province and territory. He envisions visitors walking between each of the desks — the chairs will be tucked in — and perhaps feeling inclined to leave gifts of flowers or tobacco to offer remembrance for the children.

It’s not the first time Schmalz has expressed his frustration with the tearing down of statues. Only a year ago, during the furor of the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer, he told The Catholic Register he cringed at the site of monuments being torn down.

“That incident made me realize how important visual images, especially sculptures, are for the world and for people’s psyche in a sense,” he said. “It becomes so symbolic that by removing one it comes layered with deep symbols and power and philosophy.”

Ideally, in contrast to the defacement of religious and historical monuments and burning of churches that dominated Canada Day 2021, Schmalz hopes his artistry will help make a positive contribution towards inspiring continued “decent, civilized, reasonable and unifying conversations.”

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