Father Peter sat down with Christian Sculptor Tim Schmalz to talk about his work and how he practices faith through sculpting. They began the conversation with Schmalz’s belief that we need a more diverse way of preaching in our modern world and that modern art and sculpture are a way to bring scripture to life. Schmalz listens to the bible in his studio, commenting that his visual space is taken up by his work, but that the gospel penetrates his audio space and inspires his art.
They began the conversation with a discussion about homelessness, focusing on the Schmalz piece, Homeless Jesus, which depicts Jesus as a homeless man on a bench. Schmalz described a spontaneous spiritual moment in which he saw a homeless person shrouded with a blanket. It haunted him and he felt like it was Jesus, so he went back to his studio and sculpted what he saw, including the feet with the wounds from the cross. He described creating space on the bench next to the sculpture so that people can sit with it, signifying the need to walk with the oppressed.
The piece made people uncomfortable to see Jesus represented this way, but Schmalz recalls Matthew 25, “Whenever you’ve helped the least of my brothers and sisters, you’ve done that to me.” This is a message people are familiar with hearing, but the sculpture allows people to see it.
Second, Schmalz and Father Peter discussed racial justice with a focus on his piece, African Nativity. Schmalz described his annual tradition of spending Easter creating a sculpture of Jesus and his struggles to represent the face of Jesus because the hundreds of faces of Jesus that have been created are not welcoming to all communities. He was cautious about creating a sculpture that is representative and welcoming to the African American community without being too forced or over-the-top. He also focused on Joseph holding the baby rather than the traditional pose of Mary and Joseph looking at the manger so that the sculpture better demonstrated love and emotion.
Finally, the discussion turned to oppression and the Schmalz sculpture Angels Unawares, inspired by the biblical admonition “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels (Heb 13:2).” At 20 feet long, it is the biggest sculpture Schmalz has created and was a project commissioned by the Vatican for the opening of its Department on Migrants and Refugees. It represents the story of oppression with the 140 figures representing different times in history, from the oppression of the Cherokee to a Polish person escaping Nazi Germany to a Syrian woman. The sculpture even includes Mary, Joseph, and Jesus, reminding us that they were refugees.
“I had to get their emotion authentic, not just their clothing,” said Schmalz. “It represents a way to reach out and encounter God in the stranger.”
The workshop ended with a tour of a piece Schmalz is currently sculpting, Let the Oppressed Go Free, which depicts human trafficking. The sculpture is 20 feet long and includes all forms of human trafficking: babies that are sold, organ trafficking, domestic workers, child laborers, child bride, slave labor, sex trafficking.
“Human trafficking is exploitation, not just people in chains. This gives a real idea of what human trafficking is,” said Schmalz of the piece.
The piece depicts Saint Bakhita opening a drain and letting free the oppressed. He envisions the piece installed on a city street to reflect the idea that human trafficking is underground and does not disrupt our lives. He wants it to disrupt daily commutes to force people to think about the issue.
“Sculpture and art are a way of living faith in action,” summarized Father Peter. “It is a way of moving beyond the church into society to help people that are suffering and to live the values of a faith-based society in the world.”
The conversation challenges us to live our faith, through art, through action, through education. Below are ways you can act on the three social justice topics discussed:
- Homelessness – Donate clothes, especially socks, to a local shelter
- Racial Justice – Educate yourself
- Oppression – Volunteer to teach English
You can watch the full discussion here.