Size matters for sculptor Schmalz
Canadian sculptor Timothy Schmalz has already caused controversy with his idea to erect a 100ft statue of Saint Patrick on top of the Reek. Here he talks to Áine Ryan about his background, artistic passion and vision for the biggest statue of our patron saint in the world.
ÁR: Explain your artistic origins?
TS: I was born in Ontario Canada near Toronto to an agnostic family. These days I live in Beijing, where I have my big studio and foundry, but travel back to Toronto each month where I also have a design studio.
I first developed an interest in art at an early age but dropped out of the prestigious OCAD (Ontario College of Art and Design) because it was focused on abstract conceptual art that had little relevance to society at large. I did not want to create work that appeared to be unsubstantial and only accessible to esoteric art critics. At this time, in my teens, I wanted to learn how to create artwork that I admired from the past like the great masters in Europe. I also wanted to create artwork that everyone could understand. I had no interest in doing ‘Visual Puns’ or trendy artwork. So I set up my own studio where I worked on primarily Christian artwork, learning and developing my skill as I went along. I studied philosophy for a time also at the University of Laurier in Waterloo, Ontario. Now I have two young children and I have basically become illiterate, the only thing I read now is the odd cereal box at breakfast!
ÁR: Describe how your interest in sculpture developed and particularly your specialisation in religious sculpture.
TS: My interest in sculpture became obsessive at the age of 16 when I created a figure of a demon approaching a man sleeping. At this point I was making abstract sculptures that reflected contemporary artwork. It was only in art college that I began to question modern art in general and since I knew I was going to be an artist for life, I wanted my art to have meaning and relevance.
I saw a lot of artists that were creating stuff a child could make. I really admired the artists from the 15th and 16th centuries and started copying their style. I thought if I could create work like Bernini or Michelangelo then that would be something of value. It did not take long for me to realise that the subject of all the great masters was Christianity. All the great artwork seemed to be dealing with epic subject matter. It was then that I realised that in order to have a great work of art one needs a great subject matter. Christianity provided me with this and it was through this artistic conversion, as it were, that I began to appreciate Catholicism more and more for my personal life.
ÁR: Elaborate on the pieces you have already done for Irish churches and how you were commissioned to create the Saint Patrick for Knock.
TS: A lot of the work I have in Ireland was commissioned by Americans including my sculptures at Knock, which include a complex one of Our Lady of Knock and one of Saint Patrick. My latest work of St Bridget of Kildare will soon be on show at the Solas Bhríde Centre in Kildare. I love Ireland and whenever I have the opportunity to meet with a patron I usually mention all the great places in Ireland that would be great for artwork. A lot of Americans have the same love and admiration for Ireland as I do, so it is easy to encourage them to support a project.
ÁR: You remarked in a recent interview that Croagh Patrick is situated in one of the most beautiful places in the world, expand on that.
TS: The area around the Reek is one of the most mystical places I have ever seen. As an American, it is precisely what one thinks about when one imagines Ireland. Green hills dropping into the ocean, with clusters of mountain-like islands and ancient ruins littering the landscape. Then when one hears of the history of the place, the magic is complete. We Americans have grown up hearing and envisioning what these places are like. We have fantasies about such places but seldom does our personal fictional landscape meet the reality without disappointment. However, Croagh Patrick and its environs surpass this. But so few Americans even know it exists. That might be hard to believe but it is true.
If there is such beauty in the world, it would be nice to share it. The whole Westport area is like an artist’s masterpiece that has been put in a dark closet. Wouldn’t it be fantastic if thousands of more people knew it existed?
ÁR: When did you get the idea for the 100 ft statue on top of the Reek? I understand you have received some negative correspondence about it?
TS: When I first climbed the mountain, with a priest friend, and looked out to the sea. As I stood half way up the mountain I had an amazing awareness of how great it is to be alive. The environment around Croagh Patrick does this to the thousands of people who climb it for all sorts of reasons. I do not believe that a large man-made structure takes away from the beauty of the environment. Look at the wonderful sculpture of four American presidents on Mount Rushmore in the US. It is 1745 metres above sea-level and now attracts around 10 million visitors a year.
Living half my life in developing countries, I see people celebrating their culture with huge Buddhas all the time. I have learned to appreciate the optimism of these people. You know if a community in Asia was offered a gift that celebrates its culture, they would not be complaining. I fear we westerners have lost all things big: big ideas, big dreams, big statements. It seems we are afraid, ashamed of ourselves and are destined to be small. If we do not change our small attitude we will be swallowed up by the ‘big’ cultural forces of the South and Far East.
The more serious criticism I have received is that people do not want a large Christian image. Christianity is what changed Ireland in to the society that we know today. When St Patrick and the other Christian evangelists came to Ireland they were met with a culture that believed in human cannibalism, human sacrifice and glorified violence. We all are Christians here in the West whether we are practicing or secular Christians and we should celebrate it, not be ashamed of it.
ÁR: What benefits would such a statue bring?
TS: Such a magnificent statue of Saint Patrick would put Ireland and Mayo on the map. Croagh Patrick would be ‘a must’ for all visitors. The world’s largest St Patrick could also increase Ireland’s national tourism for it would be of global interest that one of the world’s largest sculptures is now in Ireland.
People that never yet visited Ireland might now use this as an excuse to come. My plan to fund the work, which will cost €10 million, through donations from American citizens would play into this as well. The more people that helped build the work will inevitably result in more people wanting to visit what they helped to build. Think for a moment about how many people visited the Statue of Liberty, which was a gift to the American people from the citizens of France, in the last 100 years.
ÁR: Do you plan to travel to Ireland soon to progress the project?
TS: Yes. But I want to ensure there is consensus among the Irish population of its value before I make formal approaches to all the stakeholders. I do not want to spend so much time and energy creating a work of art that has general disapproval in the opinion of the population to which it is meant to be gifted. Even if there is local governmental acceptance, I would still like to know that the average Irish person likes the idea. I have been very surprised by the negative reaction and have received many emails from Irish people that to put it mildly have told me to ‘F**k Off with my idea’. It is a very negative attitude without any debate.