Timothy Schmalz puts a face to humanity’s legacy of migration with his latest creation which pays tribute to the world’s refugees. Photo courtesy of Timothy Schmalz

Refugees are a vision in bronze for sculptor Timothy Schmalz

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  • March 4, 2017

Christian artist Timothy Schmalz is putting a face to the label “refugee” with a new bronze sculpture.

Actually it will be hundreds of faces.

“There is probably going to be about 500 figures in it in total,” said the St. Jacobs, Ont., sculptor. “So it is pretty easy to give a full portrait of not only the refugees of today but the refugees of the past. On the outside you’ll have life-sized figures but as you move in the crowd will merge into this solid form.”

Along with having unique faces, the refugee figures will be dressed in clothing distinct to their culture, country and point in history.

“That really gives me an amazing opportunity of developing kind of a theatre of expressions and emotions that the refugees might have,” said Schmalz, whose work is displayed around the world, including the Vatican. “I have ones that are suggesting missing their country that they came from ... and I also have a lot of the defiant courage represented and optimism represented.”

Among them will be a Muslim, representing refugees of today, an Orthodox Jew symbolic of those who fled Nazi Germany, and an Irish migrant who sought to escape the potato famine of the 1800s.

“If you look close enough you will see a sculpture of a pregnant Mary and Joseph,” said Schmalz. “Mary and Joseph were, as Pope Francis said, refugees.”

Similar to Schmalz’ previous work, the most famous being the Homeless Jesus which was recently installed in Capernaum, Israel, and Johannesburg, the refugee sculpture draws on a passage from the Bible. While the Homeless Jesus statue, part of the When I Was series, refers to Matthew 25, Schmalz’s current project pulls meaning from Hebrews 13.

“Be kind to strangers because you never know when you are entertaining an angel unaware.”

Credit for the idea is also owed to Fr. Michael Czerny, a Canadian Jesuit who is the secretary of migrants and refugees section for the Vatican’s department of the Promotion of Integral Human Development. While speaking with the priest in Rome earlier this year, “he suggested that I start thinking about creating a sculpture specifically on refugees,” said Schmalz.

Czerny said his suggestion was prompted by the need for people to understand that migration for prosperity is not a crisis, but simply what humans have always done.

“Let’s stop calling migration a crisis of humanity,” he wrote in an email. “Migration is something that people have been doing throughout our history.”

Schmalz has been working on the piece every day at his studio in Hamilton, Ont. The scale model is expected to be completed by the end of March and the final version in two years.

“For me this is my form of praying,” he said, adding that an audio recording of the New Testament is typically playing while he works. “It’s a very prayerful state that I’m in. Hopefully that will be reflected in the final piece.”

Clustered together, the “collage” of refugees will be depicted standing on a raft. “My vision is to have the piece in a reflecting pond or some body of water and have the raft sinking so that the water laps up to the feet,” he said. “That would just be chilling.”

The sculpture measures about three metres by six metres (10 feet by 20 feet) and Schmalz envisions it resting at or near locations where refugees have been welcomed, such as the Statue of Liberty, Halifax’s historical Pier 21 or inside Pearson International Airport in Toronto.

In addition to producing a life-sized piece, which Schmalz expects to cost between $300,000 and $500,000, a smaller mould will be created for casting scaled-down versions at a fraction of the price, about $5,000.

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