On the grounds of Rome’s St. Peter in Chains Basilica, the historic church where Michelangelo’s masterpiece Moses sits, is a life-size sculpture for which Sheridan College life drawing model, Edward Czuchnicki, posed.
The bronzed work titled When I was Naked is by Canadian sculptor Timothy P. Schmalz. It depicts Christ as a homeless person, drawing inspiration from a Gospel of Matthew verse. The figure sits upon the ground, back hunched and arm outstretched, covered with only a piece of cardboard.
The pose is a Czuchnicki original. Unlike other works in Schmalz’s biblical series that are heavily draped, this one reveals much of the human form, making Czuchnicki feel particularly connected to it. And he felt comfortable bringing his idea for the pose to the renowned artist, having worked with him for more than two decades.
They met by happenstance in Waterloo, Ontario at an Open Life drawing class. Czuchnicki, who then worked full-time as a technical illustrator for AT&T, was asked by a friend to fill in last minute as a model. He’d never modeled before that day, let alone nude. Schmalz was attending the class and immediately struck by Czuchnicki’s unique look and natural abilities.
“An excellent model has an awareness that’s intuitive,” says Schmalz. “Ed has that. He can animate his body with the subtle movement of a wrist or swing of a shoulder. He has a form that’s been seen for centuries in artwork, an almost perfect, marble-type quality.”
Making history in Vatican City
Schmaltz’s most significant work to date is a life-size boat carrying refugees of varying ages and ethnicities with angel wings anchored in the vessel’s centre. Czuchnicki played a prominent role, posing for more than half of the 140 human figures. Titled Angels Unawares, it’s the first sculpture in 400 years installed on the grounds of St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City.
Pope Francis, who previously blessed a maquette – or scale model of the sculpture – before requesting the much grander version, was in attendance for its unveiling on September 29, 2019 – World Day for Migrants and Refugees.
Religious significance aside, Czuchnicki believes the piece will speak to anyone who sees it. “The refugee crisis is an issue that demands our attention,” he says. “We’re all on that boat.” Schmalz describes the piece as a tapestry of people and emotions. “To see more than 100 people of all backgrounds represented together in this way is a visual history lesson,” he says. “There’s a fear and wariness of strangers in today’s society, but this work forces us to re-examine that idea.”
As a tribute to years of friendship and long hours posing in his studio, Schmalz sculpted one of the passengers in the image of Czuchnicki’s late mother Janina. “It looks just like her,” says Czuchnicki, who had shown Schmalz black and white photos of her from her youth, around the time of the Second World War when she left Poland to seek refuge in Canada. “She would have thought this to be a tremendous honour. Knowing she’ll live on in this way for 1000 years is a true gift.”
Creating a lasting impression on students
When he’s not in Schmalz’s St. Jacob’s, Ontario studio, Czuchnicki works as a model for Sheridan’s various life and character drawing classes, required courses in some of the college’s arts programs. Many stand-out drawings featured in the glass displays in Sheridan’s halls bears his likeness. Students are evidently impacted by his work.
So much so that former Honours Bachelor of Animation student Taha Neyestani created a short film called Ed for his final-year thesis. The story it tells is inspired by the magic that Czuchnicki creates in the studio. In 2016, it won a prestigious Annie Award – one of the animation industry’s top honours. Czuchnicki considers this homage a career highlight.
“Ed was an inspirational model for me and many others,” says Neyestani. “He puts a great deal of thought and research into his craft, always trying to learn himself and recreate poses from iconic sculptures and paintings. It felt like we had our own renaissance figure posing for us. If you draw Ed, it definitely leaves an impression on you.”
Honours Bachelor of Illustration alumna Kimberlyn Porter echoes Neyestani’s assessment of Czuchnicki’s modeling. “I remember Ed’s ability to hold physically demanding poses for long stretches of time,” she says. “This was important for us to be able to capture details, shadows and gesture in our work.”
“An excellent model has an awareness that’s intuitive. Ed has that. He can animate his body with the subtle movement of a wrist or swing of a shoulder.” – Timothy P. Schmalz
“When it comes to poses, I think big. I like the deep end of the pool. There’s enough average stuff going on,” says Czuchnicki. He often bends or twists his body, extending and contorting, finding ways to create new perspectives for artists. “Legs might be coming at you or I’ll be backwards and turning. I stay up late at night thinking of how to challenge the students.”
For each session, he comes prepared with poses and listens carefully to the professor’s lesson before he takes the model stand. He likens the session to telling a story with his body, absent of words, movement and oftentimes, clothing. “There’s a vulnerability to the experience, but when it works, it’s fabulous. What the students take from it and capture on their canvases is brilliant.”
Getting back on the other side of the canvas
Going for dynamic and physically demanding poses has taken a toll on Czuchnicki’s body. Nerve damage kept him sidelined over the summer, but despite the set-back he feels his modeling work has kept him fit. “When Sheridan students have an anatomy test, they call the 66-year old guy,” he says, smiling.
In addition to life-drawing sessions and Schmalz’s religious works, he’s posed as Gordon Lightfoot for a 13-foot sculpture as a tribute to the singer-songwriter in Orillia, Ontario and a Canadian Mint silver Samuel de Champlain coin by artist Laurie McGaw.
“When it comes to poses, I think big. I like the deep end of the pool. There’s enough average stuff going on.” – Edward Czuchnicki
Soon Czuchnicki will be hanging up his robe and costumes for good at Sheridan. As he puts it, he’ll be 95% retired from modeling, with hopes of getting back on the other side of the canvas, rekindling his own artistic passions. The remaining 5% will be spent modeling for Schmalz.
“It’s hard to fully retire from something so enjoyable,” he says. “This wasn’t a filler job for me, I take it very seriously.” Czuchnicki is eager to travel with his partner to see Schmalz’s art situated throughout Rome. He’ll finally get the chance to see the finished pieces that he helped bring to life.
Pictured at top of page: Edward (Ed) Czuchnicki in front of Sheridan student work at Trafalgar Campus.
Story written by: Keiko Kataoka, Digital Communications Officer at Sheridan.