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Fighting Sculpture with Sculpture

Renowned sculptor, Timothy Schmalz, has been working since 4 a.m. on his latest sculpture – which he estimates is six months away from completion – called ‘Let the Oppressed Go Free’.

Schmalz has been working on the piece for more than a year now, after the Vatican had asked him to explore the subject of human trafficking.

Today, as the sculpture finds its way into reality, it features a plethora of images and faces that are meant to shock and create awareness.

“The great thing about this piece,” he says, “is that the dialogue is focused on what happened 100 years ago. I get a little bit angry because right now, there are more slaves than ever before in the history of humankind. It’s absolutely unbelievable.”

Schmalz says that human slavery and trafficking can be found everywhere today in places like London, ON, Toronto, Chicago, Atlanta and perhaps every major city – and even smaller cities – in America. He also cites people who are basically in slavery. In Africa right now, people are still sold on the black market and sold at auctions as we speak.

“Human trafficking is slavery,” Schmalz says, “that is basically a global situation. I’m talking about the slave that is brought in from Asia working in the United Emirates and she is the cleaning woman and the sex toy of the family; and she can do nothing and if she does try to do anything, then she will get (beaten).”

He talks about the child soldier who, in a village of Africa, is forced to kill his mother so he will be a brutal soldier; or in Bangladesh, where children are just basically slaves.

“There’s no other way around it,” he says.

Here, in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, Schmalz says young girls and boys are being used as sex toys:

“You have these organized people who are just using people worse than you would use cattle, to make a profit. It’s happening now and there’s no way that they can escape from this.”

Schmalz says that when he sees this, when it is so pronounced and when he truly sees the heart of evil, it makes no sense to him when people go screaming at statues of Canada’s first Prime Minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, in parks like Baden’s – where hardly anyone goes – and protesters beheading statues of the former Prime Minister in places like Montreal.

“I say then, we are distorted in our orientation,” Schmalz insists. “If we could have that energy for the slaves that are just up the street, that are being perpetually oppressed, then that (would be) something good, but then, I found out that it’s really not about oppression; it’s about power. It’s about one group of people trying to get more power.”

In order to understand slavery, says Schmalz, one would have to understand that every single culture in every single country in human history has embraced slavery, as it was once the norm. Schmalz credits Christianity with changing that mindset:

“Thanks to Christianity, we do not have slavery anymore.”

Schmalz says his sculpture of ‘Let the Oppressed Go Free’ is perfect in its rendering of the message of human trafficking, depicting modern-day slaves coming out of a sewer grate; they are being released – humans coming out of the ground and emerging out of their environment, their prison of suffering in silence so to speak.

One image he has infused into the piece is a representation of the dove of St. Bakhita, the Patron Saint of human trafficking survivors. Josephine Margaret Bakhita, F.D.C.C. (ca. 1869 – 8 February 1947), was a Sudanese-Italian Canossian religious sister who lived in Italy for 45 years, after having been a slave in Sudan. In 2000 she was declared a saint by the Catholic Church.

“Pope Francis said that human trafficking will always exist if it’s kept underground,” Schmalz says. “This sculpture is literally bringing those that are buried underground into the light.”

Schmalz says it is one of the most challenging sculptures to do but he strongly insists that it is far from the notion of “art for art’s sake.” Schmalz sees his work as having shock value, to get people’s attention, to inform them.

“It’s used as a vehicle, a weapon,” he says, “to make people see what’s really happening out there, and like yesterday, I was working on the child bride, which is in many places around the world, and slavery today is what we should be focusing on, not slavery that happened 100 years ago.”

Schmalz says we can actually stop what is going on today but what he thinks is most horrific is that we don’t have the same excuse that we’re living in a slave culture right now, as we have in centuries past:

“We should know better.”

“I’m not talking about micro-aggression. I’m talking about black people who are sold on ‘black’ markets; I’m talking about women who are being so abused they usually die four years after being used in such a way; I’m talking about some of the darkest (things) that are happening in Canada and NO, we want to scream about John A. Macdonald and his horrors that he presents? It’s ridiculous.”

Schmalz is well-aware of his own intimacy with the sculpture as it takes shape. He practically lives with it, he says.

“Once you open up the ground like I have with this, it just bends your brain, how people are being horribly mistreated and all the worse because it’s in the year 2020.”

One of Schmalz’s favourite quotes from Oscar Wilde states: “People in London didn’t see the fog till the painters started painting it.”

“There’s a cool awareness that’s brought to the forefront when a sculpture is created,” says Schmalz. “It’s unlike any other thing.”

Taking a break next to ‘Homeless Jesus’ in Rome.

A sculpture, however, is somewhat eternal. It has a permanence that is unique.

“Take Homeless Jesus,” for instance. “I consider that a visual translation of Bible scripture, when Jesus basically states in the New Testament that whenever you take care of the marginalized you are taking care of God and I think a lot of people in our culture have heard, ‘Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, you do unto me.’ They’ve heard it.”

What he meant by the Homeless Jesus being central to the story, he says, is that it is the first time in the history of religions that God – being Jesus – comes down into the world, our world, our day-to-day lives, and actually says, “I am closest to the most marginalized, the weakest, the lowest people in our society.”

“What Christianity did, was that it changed the game for the whole world,” says Schmalz, adding that Christianity is being chipped away daily and we have a dangerous risk of losing our morality. “If we don’t remember where our morality comes from, we’re bound to lose it.”

People have heard it, he says, but you rarely ever see it and so “what happened just recently with the sensitivity of sculptures around the world makes me aware of that sensitivity that people have that’s just almost under the surface.”

Timothy Schmalz with his sculpture ‘Let the Oppressed Go Free’ at his Elmira Studio.

Schmalz describes his artwork as the skin that covers an idea. His purpose as an artist is to make that skin as transparent and as thin as possible so the idea is being expressed but also, the sculpture will only be as good as “the awesomeness of that idea that’s being expressed.”

Schmalz conjures up Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel to drive home his point: “You know, it’s talking about the creation of humanity, among other things, deep spiritual things. But if he took that same skill and that same ceiling and did Picnic in Paris, it would fall flat and it wouldn’t have any power, so Michelangelo teaches us that the idea that’s being expressed is the most important thing and the artist should be kind of on the backstage, not the forefront.”

Will people today get the message?

Yes, Schmalz says but the work must be more than just art for art’s sake. It should shock, make people take notice.

“I think that people nowadays are very sophisticated. We have so much media and so much information coming that our work today really has to be stronger and really has to have more muscle right now than ever before for it to be actually seen.”

Right now, a lot of public artwork is invisible, he says, whether intentionally or not, because “they” do not want to ruffle anyone’s feathers. Instead, we put up things like a “minimalist cube” or “an intestine thing” that won’t offend anyone.

“It’s like the tail wagging the dog in a sense with a lot of contemporary public artwork because people are so sensitive nowadays,” Schmalz says.

Schmalz, who considered himself an agnostic in his early years, converted to Catholicism and Christianity at the age of 17.

He recalls what he once said to an old Jesuit friend of his: “I felt like someone has invited me over to dinner many times and I never returned the invitation and invited ‘them’ over to my place and that invitation happened when I started doing Christian artwork.”

That conversion was also coupled with another kind of artistic conversion when he attended the Ontario College of Art for a whopping three months about 32 years and numerous sculptures ago.

“I was really disgusted by a lot of what I saw,” says the now 51-year-old world-renowned sculptor. “I fell in love with artwork, but I felt the artwork, the pursuit of just shock art for shock value did not warrant me focusing my whole life on.”

So, he quit, got his own studio in Elmira and just started sculpting.

Schmalz’s first ‘Christian’ piece was the Crucifixion. He found it quite a fascinating experience and knew that the idea of a 20-year-old sculpting a “beautiful Crucifixion scene” was about as radical an idea as it gets.

Schmalz, who has met Pope John Paul II and has now met current Pope Francis three times, says the last encounter he had with the Pontiff at the Vatican was “just stunning.”

“I had created a sculpture for St. Peter’s Square, ‘Angel Unawares’, which highlight’s Pope Francis’s concern for refugees,” says Schmalz, adding that the amount of work that went into that piece was “over the top.”

Keep in mind that this is a man who works 14-hour days in his studio, barely stopping long enough to eat or to rest properly on some days when he is completely immersed in his sculpting. Basically, he would start at 4 a.m. and then stop when he was literally, physically drained. Schmalz does this sort of thing for months while working on a piece.

What seemed to spur him on, he says was the thought that, “I am doing this for Pope Francis, for what he cares about, so that was just absolutely fantastic.”

‘Angel Unawares’ is a bronze sculpture that was installed in St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican on September 29, 2019, the 105th World Migrant and Refugee Day. The six-meter-long sculpture depicts a group of migrants and refugees on a boat wearing clothes that show they originate from diverse cultures and historical moments. It was also the first new sculpture installed at St. Peter’s Square in 400 years.

Timothy working at his St. Jacobs studio.

“I kind of made a three-dimensional of what he was saying,” Schmalz recalls. “One area of the piece I remembered what (he) said a couple of years ago, ‘Don’t forget, Mary, Joseph and Jesus were refugees.”

Schmalz recalls that, at one time, he was deliberating on a Muslim woman, wearing the burka at the time when Quebec was going through the idea of eliminating religious symbols and questioning whether people should be able to cover their faces, among other things.

“I’m looking at this and it’s so radical because this woman – and I didn’t know what it was called yet – she’s right at the front of the boat, which is the front of the sculpture and I thought maybe I’d just tone it down a bit. Then, I thought, what would Pope Francis want? Would he want me to tone it down?”

“No,” the sculptor concluded. “He’d want me to put this at the front of the sculpture and be bold and it is amazing working with the thought that I am kind of creating a visual symbol for all that Pope Francis believes.

Pope Francis doesn’t speak English, however, and Schmalz doesn’t speak Italian or Spanish. Schmalz remembers the Pope’s reaction, after translators went through the details of the sculpture with his Holiness:

“He just stood in front of me afterwards and he put both his hands on his heart and just stood there looking at me. I knew exactly what he meant; he meant that he was so emotionally touched by it.”

The most satisfying part of the experience for Schmalz was that the piece wasn’t just powerful and unique, but it was a great narration of so much of what Pope Francis believes.

As for beheading statues of people like Sir John A. Macdonald or vandalizing works of art to make a point, Schmalz compares the sentiment to a person in a barroom, shouting out ridiculous things to the point where they’re just looking for a fight.

“That’s what I see going on in our society right now,” he says. “There are elements that are not necessarily looking at anything positive, but they want to wipe out the way things are right now. Everything’s bad, everything’s horrible, so let’s just erase it all.

There is also a thing in today’s culture, Schmalz says, called “victim status.”

“Victim status is king,” he says. “If you have victim status, that trump’s everything in our culture today.”

Go back in history, says Schmalz, and if you start suggesting and criticizing the mindset of those people from 100 years ago and yelling at their statues and tearing them down, it’s not really being sensitive to the idea that through history, our morality evolved and that we change over time:

“Are you going to go to Rome and start tearing down the Colosseum? Are you going to tear down all the sculptures and statues in Rome because you’re going to tear down quite a bit?”

As for his own works and the works of other artists, past and present, Schmalz has this to say:

“I just don’t want them destroying sculptures. I think it’s too creepy. It’s reminiscent of this despot censorship. That isn’t appropriate.

“If the message is not being appropriate – enhance rather than destroy. I’m a creative person and I believe that creating is the solution, not destroying.”

“Here’s my idea: fight bronze with bronze; fight sculpture with sculpture.”


All images courtesy of Tim Schmalz.

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