Ed Czuchnicki poses with Timothy Schmalz’s When I Was Sick You Visited Me sculpture outside St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton. Photo courtesy St. Joseph’s Healthcare Foundation

Jesus model helps cast new light on art

  • September 17, 2017

St. Jacobs, Ont., is home to a historic village, a charming farmer’s market and one of Canada’s most renowned Catholic sculptors, Timothy Schmalz.

On this day, in his backyard, Schmalz has a visitor — Jesus.

Or rather a stand-in for Jesus. And he’s holding a rifle.

Ed Czuchnicki, 65, has modelled for Schmalz for about 20 years and been the life model for all of the artist’s Jesus sculptures inspired by a passage from Matthew 25, including his most recent work When I Was Sick You Visited Me. The bronze sculpture, featured outside of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, was blessed by Bishop Douglas Crosby on Aug. 17.

The key to posing as Jesus is to “not let it go to your head,” said Czuchnicki, who was raised Catholic.

“I am representing someone, I am not pretending to be them,” he said. “I never think, ‘I am Jesus right now.’ If I am representing Christ, it’s Christ. If I’m representing a pirate, it’s a pirate.”

Czuchnicki is not dressed as Jesus this day. He is representing World War II soldiers for a mural Schmalz is creating for the City of Ajax to honour Canadian soldiers who helped liberate Europe.

Schmalz’s studio is in his backyard, behind a beautiful Victorian house with a wrought-iron gate encircling green grass that is wet with early morning dew. Several ducks roam the property, one of which is appropriately named Waddles. They belong to the artist’s young children.

The studio itself is inside a large shed. It is filled with life-sized sculptures of human figurines, most of which are covered in red tarp to protect them while they dry. Along the left wall sits Czuchnicki, bending his hand in a hook-like shape, emulating a soldier giving a box of heart-shaped chocolates to a little girl.

Sculpting hands is a tedious process and Schmalz spends close to an hour to ensure everything is realistic, from the veins in the hand to the exact shape of the soldier’s fingernail.

“It’s like I’m putting on a shadow puppet show,” said Czuchnicki.

The banter between the two men is friendly and familiar, as befits a relationship that goes back to the mid-1990s.

“A friend of mine ran an open life modelling class — open meaning there was no instruction — and for $10 anyone could just drop by and draw the model,” said Czuchnicki. “One evening, the phone rang and it was my friend. The model for that night’s class had cancelled and I offered to fill in. Tim happened to be there and after the session, he hired me on the spot.”

At the time, Czuchnicki was working for AT&T. Some days, he would model for Schmalz from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., then go straight to his office. Eventually, Czuchnicki quit his job and chose to model full-time.

In addition to the latest Jesus sculpture, Czuchnicki has posed in every other work in Schmalz’s Matthew 25 series, including When I Was a Stranger, When I Was Hungry and Thirsty, When I Was Naked and When I Was In Prison.

Schmalz’s most iconic work may be Homeless Jesus, a controversial sculpture that shows Jesus sleeping on a park bench. It was first installed at Regis College in Toronto in 2013 and there are now more than 50 casts of the work around the world, including at the Vatican, where Schmalz had a model of his statue blessed by Pope Francis.

The story behind the sculpture recently installed outside St. Joseph Hospital was another example of fate playing a hand in Czuchnicki’s career.

The sculpture was commissioned by the Mercanti family as a tribute to Morris Mercanti, a local entrepreneur who was cared for at St. Joseph’s before dying in 2013 at age 61.

Schmalz recalls telling Czuchnicki about the job.

“I was like ‘This sculpture is going to be in downtown Hamilton, isn’t that where you are from?’ and that’s how it came up,” said Schmalz.

It turned out that Mercanti and Czuchnicki had gone to school together.

“I still have this scar on my thumb that Morris gave me,” said Czuchnicki, revealing a faded scar left by Morris’ fingernail in a Grade 9 gym class.

Schmalz is working on several new pieces, including a Jesus with outstretched arms that Czuchnicki will model for in a few weeks.

Faith is a powerful ally for Schmalz in the sculpting process. He is currently listening to St. Augustine’s The City of God on audiobook.

“It helps me to relax,” said Schmalz. “I like to think of my studio as my private chapel for reflection and prayer. A few years ago, I listened to the King James New Testament for two years straight while I sculpted.”

As for Czuchnicki, he is ready for his next role as Jesus, he will pose with outstretched arms. He figures it will be easier than when he covered himself in cardboard and lay on a hard bench for the Homeless Jesus sessions.

“Standing with your arms stretched out like that isn’t so bad. (The Homeless Jesus pose) was pretty uncomfortable to sit in for hours … the giant piece of cardboard didn’t help either,” he said, laughing.

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