'Homeless Jesus' sculptor Timothy Schmalz on controversy and compassion

A controversial statue depicting Jesus as a homeless person is being installed at sites across the world.

Canadian artist comments on the variety of responses his work has received

Pope Francis blesses Tim Schmalz's sculpture of Jesus as a homeless man in November, 2013. (Vatican handout)

It wasn't so long ago that a statue called Homeless Jesus couldn't find a home. The controversial bronze sculpture — a creation by Canadian artist Timothy Schmalz — was at first rejected by two prominent churches, one in Toronto and one in New York. Now it can be found all over the world, in cities including Belfast, Orlando, Chicago, Dublin and Toronto, with further versions planned for London, Rome and elsewhere. It has been blessed by Pope Francis, though it has generated its share of backlash, as any worthy piece of art should (one North Carolina resident complained to his local paper that he was "creeped out" by it).

Today, Schmalz was in Orillia, Ont., to unveil a sculpture of a different bearded figure, Gordon Lightfoot. CBC Arts met up with Schmalz earlier this year to talk about Homeless Jesus and why he thinks Jesus himself would have liked it.

What originally inspired you to do this?
The inspiration came on University Avenue [in Toronto]. I saw a homeless person who looked almost identical to the way Homeless Jesus looks now. And I thought, "That is Jesus. I've just witnessed Jesus."

In a big city, we all see homeless people every day. So what was it about this particular instance that was different?
I think it was my state of mind. I used to live in Toronto, and whenever you come back to a city, you're kind of jolted by the homeless. You see them with clear eyes — you see them as human beings. So not being in the city for around a year, and then seeing these people who are almost making the city into a bedroom, it just shocked me. I went back to my studio, and the feeling didn't leave me. So I wanted to make a sculpture that would make people feel a similar feeling that I had.

I've seen your statue of Jesus as a beggar on College Street several times, but sometimes if I see it at night, I'm still jolted by it. I think it's a person.
It is meant to be misconstrued for perhaps a homeless person. For a period of time there was one in front of my studio in St. Jacob's, and even me, creating the piece, I'd turn the corner and it would jolt me. There's something about these human forms that brings your attention to them.

 If you look at the history of Christian artwork, most of the representations of Jesus have him embodied as physical perfection. Even when he's dying on the cross, his abs are just stunning.

So is the bench a part of the sculpture?
It is. I've created a sculpture where you can actually sit down. I have sculptures around the world, and what they are doing is reminding people of the sacredness of human life. Jesus said that whenever you help one of the marginalized in the community, one of the broken, you are helping him. And that was a game changer in the history of religion.

Now according to the bible, Jesus was homeless, correct?
There are parts of the Gospel that say the Son of Man had nowhere to lay his head. But this is not necessarily about that. People will get in a debate about whether Jesus was homeless or not, and that doesn't really matter to me. This is more about how he would want people to perceive him, because it's a visual translation of his words. If you look at the history of Christian artwork, most of the representations of Jesus have him embodied as physical perfection. Even when he's dying on the cross, his abs are just stunning. So this is a breakaway from that. I started thinking, how would Jesus want to be portrayed? Would he want to be made out of marble, perfect and wavy, with beautiful gowns? And if you read the Gospels, I don't think that would really interest him. I think he would want to be represented like the least of his brothers.

What kind of controversy were you expecting when you starting putting this together?
Zero. I was expecting everyone to say, "Tim, what a great idea." However, it has been rejected time and time again. Just recently, in Paris, the Oratory of the Louvre saw it and loved it, but after their first meeting they had to reject it because they are trying to discourage homeless people from going into their area, and it would be hypocritical if this was placed there. Another one is headed to downtown Cincinnati, and one of the parishioners there left, because Jesus should not be represented as a beggar.

But this Jesus isn't begging.
That's the fundamental difference between Homeless Jesus and Jesus the Beggar. Homeless Jesus is not asking anything of you. The message is more raw. In a sense it's the next step further. Some people fake being a beggar, but nobody fakes sleeping on a park bench in the cold.

Recently the pope blessed it. How did that happen?
Two years ago, the pope received the original model. The Catholic Church in the United States and Canada arranged that. And he reached out and prayed with the sculpture in front of thousands of people, and he blessed it. After, I was introduced to Pope Francis and he told me that it's an excellent and beautiful representation of Jesus. But what I find fascinating is that just as many Protestants are embracing it. So it's doing another thing: it's taking fragments of Christianity and it's giving them some common, visible subject matter.

What's some criticism you've heard that seems way off the mark to you?
Some people just don't get it. They have no clue. This really shocks some of the Christian people, because they're used to seeing Christian artwork done in a certain way. But this is only as shocking as the Gospels are. This isn't a chocolate Jesus, or Piss Christ, which is shocking just for the sake of being shocking. But the response is fascinating. People are leaving the church because of it, and people call the police on it.

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