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Sculptor draws inspiration from Fort McMurray wildfire for firefighter tribute

Click to play video 'Ontario artist carving tribute for Fort McMurray firefighters' Ontario artist carving tribute for Fort McMurray firefighters
WATCH: An Ontario artist is capturing the spirit and dedication of the firefighters who battled the devastating blaze in northern Alberta in a sculpture commissioned to honour the firefighters of Fort McMurray. Mike Drolet has the story. – May 31, 2016

Far from the burning boreal forest of northern Alberta, Tim Schmalz works in a small studio behind his St. Jacob’s, Ont. house, tirelessly carving a sculpture to honour the firefighters of Fort McMurray.

Considering the fire isn’t even out yet, the timing of the sculpture may seem odd. But he was actually hired to create the piece two weeks before the wildfire started burning.

Schmalz is an accomplished sculptor, with pieces of his work all over the world.

Perhaps his best known work has now been duplicated in 40 cities around the world. It’s called “Homeless Jesus” and it depicts a cloaked Jesus lying on a park bench. He had just returned home from unveiling one of the sculptures for Pope Francis at the Vatican when he heard about the wildfire that devastated Fort McMurray and surrounding communities.

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“I’m sitting with my wife and she tells me, ‘Have you heard about the massive fire in Fort Mac, one of largest in Canada?’ Everything stopped for me,” he told Global News from his studio. “I told her, I just got commissioned two weeks earlier to create one of largest fire monuments.” Schmalz recently completed an impressive monument to firefighters in Waterloo, Ont.

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Once he turned on the news, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

“It just looked like Dante’s Inferno,” he said. “I’m a Christian sculptor and I don’t really believe in coincidence, and I think there must be a purpose for me creating this at this specific time.”

So he started carving. The sculpture is based on the Firefighter’s Prayer.

“I want to fill my calling… to give the best in me, to guard my friend and neighbour,” the prayer reads.

“That, as we all now know, they did — working almost non-stop for a week to save the majority of the city,” he said.

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In one section of his sculpture-in-progress, he has a firefighter saving a child while another saves an older man. On the opposite side, several firefighters work to knock down a blaze.

He worked with the Fort Mac firefighters to come up with the content, but he now thinks he may have to add something to reference this particular fire — a blaze that has been dubbed “the beast.”

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“I believe artwork is a tool to reflect reality and to inspire, and to actually motivate people,” he said. “It’s all focused on the willingness to die for brothers and sisters, and that’s a reality firefighters have to come to terms with.”

The piece is being carved in clay right now. When finished, he’ll make a plastic mould which will then be sent to a casting plant for it be bronzed. The final product will weigh a couple of tonnes and will likely be placed on a base that has the firefighters prayer carved into it. If all goes well, it could be done as early as September.

“There’s a certain amount of intensity that’s on me right now. But, I just keep my focus on honouring those firefighters.”