Timothy Schmalz works on the clay model for his bronze sculpture When I Was Naked. Photo courtesy Timothy Schmalz

Sculptor draws inspiration from homeless

By 
  • May 28, 2019

When Timothy Schmalz was envisioning how best to portray Christ in his When I Was Naked sculpture, he was stumped.

How could he show the emptiness of the marginalized people he was trying to grasp from Matthew’s Gospel?

“I wanted to make it very distinct and emphasize the nakedness, the emptiness that’s reflected in the Scripture,” said the St. Jacob’s, Ont., sculptor whose biblically-themed works adorn churches around the world.

It’s something he struggled with for about three years, and it wasn’t until he was in Rome in 2016 that the idea struck him: this Jesus would be naked save for a cardboard box shielding Him from the elements.

The idea sprang from a sleepless night, fuelled by adrenaline, awaiting Pope Francis to bless Schmalz’s Homeless Jesus installed outside of the Papal Office of Charities in Rome, perhaps the most well-known of his bronze works. Looking out his hotel window, in a state of heightened awareness, he was struck by a scene outside. Homeless people were sleeping nearby, with only a piece of cardboard between them and the dirty street.

“To me cardboard is something that’s discarded. To them, it’s a barrier between the world and then to give them privacy,” he said. “It’s their pillows, it’s their principal form of shelter.”

And it was something that would have to be incorporated into When I Was Naked. The sculpture depicts Jesus seated, His head bent low and hand outstretched, naked save for the cardboard shield.

“The real nakedness of the figure is empathized with the piece of cardboard that the figure is holding,” said Schmalz.

A new casting of the sculpture will have a home in Toronto in the front garden of St. Patrick’s Church on McCaul Street. The sculpture and its accompanying plaque will be blessed after the noon Mass on June 2. 

The St. Patrick’s piece will be the fourth church to have a When I Was Naked sculpture. It has also been erected at St. Peter in Chains Basilica in Rome, St. Peter in Chains Cathedral in Cincinnati and Blessed Sacrament Cathedral in Detroit. 

What these sites share is they are in the heart of their cities, locations Schmalz says that can showcase his art to people “where they would least expect it.”

“It’s a perfect opportunity to preach with sculpture. It’s right there in the heart of the city.”

Schmalz has for almost 30 years been sculpting large scale pieces with a strong focus (though not exclusively) on visually translating the Bible. His work is in churches across the world, including Homeless Jesus in more than 100 locations.

St. Patrick’s has a long connection of working with the poor, said pastor Fr. Santo Arrigo. For more than 30 years it has hosted the Out of the Cold program to house and feed homeless during the winter months. Street Patrol runs out of the parish and for the past dozen years has done high school retreats on social justice and service, among others. So parishioners understand where this artwork is coming from.

“They get it, they understand because they understand the parish,” said Arrigo.

While the plaque with the sculpture will recognize the people of the street, it will also honour this parish reality.

“We’re dedicating it to the men and women who are on the street but also to the many people who are involved in so many ways at St. Patrick’s who make these service projects come to life,” said Arrigo.

Schmalz has been inspired by Matthew 25, particularly verses 35 and 36, in creating the series that includes When I Was Naked. He said it’s one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament, yet finds “it’s very, very rarely represented (in art) at all.” 

He wants to reach outside that comfort level where artists portray the Crucifixion, the Last Supper, the Stations of the Cross, etc. and “see Jesus in places maybe I might be uncomfortable with or maybe I haven’t thought about doing.”

“These are challenges and I want to see that more in Christian art today.”

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