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Inspiration turns lumps of clay into coveted works

Timothy Schmalz at his Elmira studio on Park Avenue, once home to a fabric plant where he worked at after dropping out of college at the age of 19 before opting to make the plunge full-time into his passion for sculpting. [Aneta Rebiszewski / The Observer]

Recently returned from the Vatican, where he presented another piece of art to the Pope, Timothy Schmalz is right back to work doing what he loves most.

Every morning between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., he gets dressed to go into his Elmira studio, where he spends most of his day working with clay. Schmalz turns on the radio and listens to the bible through the speaker as he begins his work, usually starting from where he left off the day before.

Born and raised in Elmira, the artist has been creating sculptures since the age of 16. Schmalz recalls the days when he attended Elmira District Secondary School (EDSS) where he first got his hands dirty with clay that made him fall in love with the medium – “I just never really stopped sculpting since then,” he says with a laugh.

As he discovered his passion from a young age, Schmalz then went on to attend Ontario Arts College in Toronto, where only three months in he dropped out and returned back home. 

Being only 19 at the time, Schmalz supported himself through a factory job at the long-gone Park Avenue Fabrics in Elmira.  It was a beautiful spring day, recalls Schmalz as he stared out the window and thought to himself “What am I doing here?” and that was enough for the artist to quit his job and pursue sculpting full-time.

From that point on, Schmalz returned to Toronto to work in a studio where he became obsessive over sculpting.

“It’s really awesome to create something out of nothing, out of clay. It’s just a fascinating experience and I think with sculpture it has so many qualities about it – it can be very intellectual but also very physical. It’s kind of an all-around thing to do. It can be very thoughtful or it can just be very beautiful, so there’s a variety of ways you can approach the subject. It gives you an endless amount of interesting aspects to take it as you develop as an artist.”

Day and night, Schmalz worked hard on his sculpting and it wasn’t until the age of 23 where he finally got recognized for his art. The young artist created a big sculpture of a holy family that went viral, especially in the United States. The reaction he got from people when they saw the piece is what made everything so exciting to a point where the Bishops of Canada arranged to give the original piece to Pope John Paul II, an experience that the artist will never forget because he was so young at the time.

Now the Elmira artist is found in one of his three studios each day from early morning to mid-afternoon where he balances usually up to six projects at once.

Just recently the local artist made a trip to the Vatican to reveal his new sculpture he made for the Pope – a bronze, six-metre-high Angels Unawares statue that is located in the historic piazza in front of St. Peter›s Basilica. Of the six other pieces of his art that have been placed all over the Vatican, this is one of which he is proudest.

“It was interesting, but I wasn’t sure how to do it – it was like a puzzle. I remember I came back from the Vatican, I thought ‘OK, I’ll give it a shot. I’ll try to figure out how to actually sculpt this refugee piece’ and, bang the idea came to me with having the boat with a crowd of refugees from all historical periods of time,” he recalls of the process.

With much of his time spent alone, Schmalz is always in tune with the bible and one day he came across the passage of Hebrews 13:2 in the New Testament – “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares” –  that inspired his recent statue. The project started two Easters ago, the artist recalls, and was completed just in time for the World Day of Migrants and Refugees that was being celebrated at the Vatican with the Pope.

His passion never seems to seize and it allows him to continue taking on more projects. Currently the artist is in his Elmira studio working on another large sculpture based on the theme of human trafficking. On the other side of the world in his China studio, the artist is starting on a 16-foot piece that will be displayed in Petralia, Italy in the near future. Given the many projects he handles, Schmalz is often on the go as he plans out art sculptures in various holy places around the world.

When he is not travelling or in the studio, Schmalz comes home to his family in St. Jacobs. He often slows down when he is at home spending time with his wife and children. Schmalz is also fortunate enough to have a third studio at his home where he often likes to take his kids so that they too can get creative. Reaching his 50th birthday this year, the artist has no intention of slowing down just yet.

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