Q&A with Timothy Schmalz, the sculptor behind ‘Homeless Jesus’ installed at the Vatican

Timothy Schmalz, a sculptor based in St. Jacobs, Ont., learned last week in the run-up to Easter that one of his controversial pieces had been installed at the Vatican. Even better, it was a sculpture that had been rejected by not one but two archdioceses in North America.

Schmalz’s work, titled Homeless Jesus, features a life-size figure wrapped in a thick blanket sleeping on a city bench. The figure can only really be identified as Jesus through the wounds on his bare feet. Schmalz calls the work a visual representation of Matthew 25:40, a passage in the New Testament in which it is said that which is done to the least of his brothers and sisters is done to Jesus himself.

After it was completed in 2012, the sculpture was declined by both St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto and St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York. Considered controversial for its bedraggled depiction of Christ, for a year it lay in storage until it was given a home in front of the University of Toronto’s Regis College.

Schmalz has since made numerous copies of the statue, which have been installed in front of churches and in public squares all over the world. Last week he was able to add the Office of Papal Charities to that list.

Yahoo Canada News spoke to Schmalz about his art, its role in social justice movements and his reaction upon hearing Homeless Jesus had been installed in Rome.

Q. What inspired the Jesus the Homeless statue?

It was one of those sculptures that literally demanded to be created. I was in downtown Toronto and I saw a homeless person who was completely wrapped up in a sleeping bag. It was a haunting image and I took it in a spiritual context and I basically told myself, that’s Jesus over there. That image stuck with me and when I went back to my studio, I thought I would sculpt my interpretation of that experience, so hopefully other people, when they see the least and marginalized in our community, will see something spiritual within that.

The Jesus sculpture could just be considered of a homeless person on a park bench, but when you get closer up you see the wounds in the feet, which suggest that it is actually Jesus and not just another homeless person.

Q. What do you make of the controversy surrounding it?

A lot of places have declined to display it. Just recently the Westminster city council in London, England, forbade the Methodist Central Hall to put it in front of their church. I think the reason people refuse to display it is because in a sense, it is shocking. We’re used to seeing Jesus as Mr. Perfect, Christ the King; we’re used to seeing the visual ambassadors of our religion in a set way and this is really turning that upside down.

Instead of worrying about the little ringlets and the perfect abs in a Jesus sculpture, it focuses on representing him as he represented himself in his words. You know how people ask, “What would Jesus do?” Being a sculptor I’ve asked myself many times, “How would Jesus like to be sculpted?”And I don’t think he would really care if he had perfect teeth or perfect abs.

It [the sculpture] brings to the fore questions about what our spiritual values are. Ironically, a lot of people who have a problem with the sculpture are religious people, Christians themselves. I think if they’d really look at the piece before they make judgment they would see that it’s a message Jesus himself would be proud to have displayed on city streets.

Q. What role do you think art has in drawing attention to social inequalities?

I think there’s been a blind spot in Christian art for centuries. One of my favourite quotes is from Oscar Wilde who at the turn of the century said, “London fogs did not exist until they were discovered by art,” meaning one of the special qualities art has is to bring into focus things that are otherwise forgotten. To have artwork that brings to attention that all human life is sacred and when we see the marginalized and the homeless, we should be seeing that is godly within all human beings.

Artwork has the power, like Oscar Wilde said, to make people see what is usually invisible. For homeless people in a big city, people get so used to seeing them that they become invisible, just an obstacle you have to manoeuvre around. Hopefully this sculpture will encourage more compassion and more understanding and I think it’s a message that we all need to be reminded of.

Q. How many cities are they in right now?

It’s unbelievable. It’s a figure that’s growing every single day. The latest [location] is in the National Cathedral in Madrid, Spain. They’re installing it in front of the cathedral which is phenomenal. It’s already in Dublin at the Christ Church Cathedral, right in the centre of Dublin. There’s one that’s being cast for Belfast. There’s Chicago, Detroit, Denver, Buffalo, Washington, D.C., Seattle is getting one cast. I think there’s more than 100 now. It’s become more of a movement than a piece of artwork. I just heard that Havana, Cuba, is going to be placing one right in front of their cathedral.

Q. When did you first learn that the Vatican had installed the piece?

Over Holy Week I got an email from the Vatican that the sculpture was up and installed right in front of the papal charities building, which is just absolutely the best spot in the world for the sculpture to go. Pope Francis renewed the papal charities when he came in and the amount of work his charities do for the homeless is just phenomenal. To have the sculpture in the piazza of the papal charities building in the Vatican is such an amazing tribute to the message Pope Francis is urging us to understand and adopt.

Q. Where would you love to see this piece displayed?

Right now, New York City. I’d love to see a location in New York.

Q. What are you working on next?

I’ve been exploring more parts of the Bible and specifically the ideas of Matthew 25. There’s a couple more of my gospel pieces that are going to be installed in Toronto so I’m working on casting that. I think it’s phenomenal that in 2,000 years of Christianity, artists are still using the Bible for subject matter. You’d think everything would have been done after 2,000 years but still there are ways of interpreting it.

This interview has been condensed and edited.