A new piece of public art is generating curiosity and conversation in front of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson. The metal sculpture “Homeless Jesus” by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz depicts a Jesus in rags sleeping on a park bench in front of the brick sanctuary.
Rector the Rev. David Buck was among a small work crew that installed the piece on Friday, un-crating it from a shipping container oddly labeled “Liturgical Snakes.” The men secured the bench and Jesus to a concrete pad with bolts and erected a plaque nearby explaining the piece.
Buck welcomed the sculpture, saying he liked the way it challenges viewers.
“It’s here because it’s wonderful art that reminds, with this beautiful (church) structure here, that our faith is expressed through our concern and care for the homeless,” Buck said. “We think it’s the perfect place for it.”
Not everyone agrees. Schmalz’s bronze sculpture reportedly was rejected by cathedrals in Toronto and New York, though it has won approval from Catholic Pope Benedict.
The piece is challenging, for its depiction of Jesus as one of society’s most downtrodden. At first glance, the life-sized image could be mistaken for an actual homeless man – an image that in itself might be unsettling. A closer look reveals nail wounds in the figure’s feet, a clue to his identity.
Schmalz, of Kitchener, Ontario, describes his work as “visual prayer.”
“The best compliment these sculptures receive is to amaze and fascinate the most cynical youths of today,” he says in a statement on his website. “If they think that the art is amazing, they will have to think that the message is as well; a ‘cool’ sculpture outside a church may make them think that, likewise, something ‘cool’ is to be found inside the church.”
The sculpture is a gift in memory of the late Kate MacIntyre, who as Davidson’s downtown director helped start the town’s public art program. MacIntyre also was a St. Alban’s member and the wife of longtime church member Peter Macon. When she passed away in 2007, a private donor, Martin McCoy, pledged $20,000 for a public art project in her memory.
McCoy and Macon discussed different ideas in recent years until they came upon Schmalz’s work. Both use the word “serendipity” to describe how they discovered it. Macon said McCoy “stumbled upon it. … Once found, that became the thing.”
“At the end of the day, this was the most compelling,” Macon added.
Schmalz has said the piece was inspired by a gospel passage, Matthew: 25. “This sculpture is a representation that suggests Christ is with the most marginalized in our society. The Christ figure is shrouded in a blanket the only indication that it is Jesus is the visible wounds on the feet. The life-size version of the work has enough room that someone is able to sit on the bench.”
The fact that the sculpture was surrounded by controversy made it all the more interesting, Macon said. And that also caught the attention of Buck and others at St. Alban’s.
The juxtaposition of the sculpture and relatively new building “reminds us what (the church) is all about,” Buck said.
So on Friday, McCoy, Buck and a small crew of other workers brought “Homeless Jesus” to its new home.
Said Macon: “It’s extraordinarily appropriate. … It certainly is thought-provoking and inspirational. I don’t think it’s disturbing, but it gives you pause.”