Timothy Schmalz received a commission from the Fort McMurray Fire Department to create a massive bronze sculpture honouring their firefighters – two weeks before the wildfires in northern Alberta began.
Schmalz had just returned from a trip to Rome, and was sitting in his kitchen when his wife asked if he’d heard about the wildfires in Fort McMurray.
“I said, ‘Do you realize that I’m [already] working on [a sculpture] for Fort McMurray?’ And there’s just silence,” Schmalz says. As a Christian, he feels that more than coincidence led to this series of events.
The sculpture is called “A Firefighter’s Prayer,” based on the well-known supplication often heard before firefighter meetings and memorial services. The seven-by-seven-foot monument is in the shape of the Maltese cross, a Christian symbol which firefighters have universally adopted on their badges and trucks across Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
When tragedies happen people often ask where God is, and at the same time a kind of holy love is evident in the bravery of those willing to sacrifice themselves to protect others, says Schmalz.
“The positive aspect of a horrible situation like [the wildfires] is reflected in that selflessness that these firefighters are exercising and showing the world,” Schmalz tells the Christian Courier.
“Their passion and courage and their pure tenacity in this circumstance – that’s what this sculpture is about; it’s taking one of the worst tragedies that could ever happen in this small city and highlighting a positive.”
Through previous firefighter projects, Schmalz says he has developed deep friendships with people in the field and believes firefighters tend to have a strong faith. While others drive past an accident, the firefighters go in and deal with life and death situations, fostering the idea that there is more than this material world.
When he was first approached about the sculpture, Schmalz says he was perplexed about having such a huge monument in a small city. But now he can’t help think the sculpture is taking on symbolic significance as a metaphor for Fort McMurray. As the city rebuilds, a bronze monument showcasing prayer will be in its centre.
“Now I think providentially of course . . . I could not think in the world right now where a big art sculpture that showcases a firefighter’s prayer would be more appropriate,” he says. “I’m not a fireman, I can’t go and try to put out the fires myself, but I certainly can give dignity and honour to what warrants it.”
When the fires started Schmalz was at the Vatican for the placement of his “Homeless Jesus” sculpture, another piece that has been connected to larger events in the world. Representing Matthew 25, the “Homeless Jesus” sculpture suggests Christ is with the most marginalized in society.
“The first installation of that sculpture happened two weeks before the new Pope was announced, [and] his message seems to be precisely that of Matthew 25,” he says. “It’s fascinating how artwork is connected to bigger picture ideas.”
Schmalz says his timeline to complete the monument by September has remained the same.
“I think it will hopefully bring some peace and closure to a city that has been devastated.”
Images of sacrifice are prominent on the two-tonne “Firefighter’s Prayer.”
The Pope called Schmalz’s statue, now installed at the Vatican, a “beautiful representation of Jesus.”
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