"We are so used to seeing Jesus in a traditional way and this breaks those conventions," said Schmalz. The sculpture has a "message everyone should appreciate," he said.
The message and the sculpture are being appreciated in downtown Buffalo. The statue was unveiled there a week ago — a homeless Jesus sleeping under a blanket on a park bench.
People have been moved to leave money, food and other items.
It all started when Schmalz was visiting Rome. He found 'perfect' depictions of Jesus. It made him think about how Jesus himself would want to be represented.
The sculpture "calls people to action… and influences society and changes society," Schmalz says. It "has a mission. It challenges us to look at the world and look at the real aspects that real Christianity brought us. We are so gauged on how much you own is how much you're worth."
The bronze statue was unveiled in Buffalo last Tuesday outside St. Paul's Episcopal Cathedral, which collects the items each day and donates them to a local organization that helps the homeless.
"When I first heard about this I thought, well, it's doing precisely what ... artwork at its best could possibly be doing," Schmalz said from his home in St. Jacobs, Ont.
Schmalz said the sculpture has been installed in a number of cities including Toronto and Davidson, N.C., and others, such as Hamilton and Kitchener, are planned.
Blessed by the Pope, rejected by churches in Toronto, New York
The artwork had its genesis a few years ago in downtown Toronto, Schmalz said.
"I saw a homeless person, and initially I had an experience where, from seeing this person, I felt that I saw Jesus and I wanted other people to make that connection that I did that day," he said.
In November of 2013, Schmalz went to the Vatican with his sculpture to see Pope Francis. The pope prayed with the statue and blessed it in St. Peter's Square. Before the blessing the sculpture was considered but turned down by Toronto's St. Michael's Cathedral and by St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.
The sculpture is cast in heavy bronze with a small space at the feet of the reclining figure where a person can sit "uncomfortably," he said, adding the one in North Carolina "is already shiny where people sit and shiny on the feet where people are touching it."
Schmalz said the Davidson sculpture made the news a year ago "because someone called the police on it — they thought it was a real homeless person."
Many of the sculptures have been donated to cities by patrons, and Schmalz said one person, who wishes to remain anonymous, is seeking to sponsor installations in a dozen cities around the world.
"One of the nicest stories that I heard is the one that is in Austin, Texas, where the sculpture inspired a donation of $100,000 to the homeless," he said. "What more can I say — absolute happiness."
With files from the Canadian Press.