The One Called Jesus comes to St. Albert

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J.J. Nearing Catholic Elementary School students were among the first in Western Canada to get an up-close look at the last works of a talented Ontario farmer this week.

Scores of J.J. Nearing students learned about the life of Christ this week after The One Called Jesus travelling religious exhibit arrived at their door.

The exhibit, curated by Sister Thérèse Turcotte of Ontario, features 50 intricate clay sculptures depicting the life and death of Jesus Christ by Maurice Gaudreault – a milk farmer in Ontario who produced some 1,148 clay sculptures in 18 years.

The exhibit has been on the road since 2002, and is making its western Canada debut in St. Albert this month.

“It’s a perfect timeline of the life of Jesus in 50 different sculptures,” exults Turcotte, who has been the exhibit’s enthusiastic volunteer curator since the beginning.

“It’s history, it’s art, it’s religion, all tied up!”

While the exhibit has previously stuck to Ontario and Quebec, Turcotte said she decided to bring it out west this year after getting many requests from Alberta schools.

Greater St. Albert Catholic Schools, meanwhile, had coincidentally decided to make living and leading like Jesus their faith theme for this year, said superintendent David Keohane. The board had heard of the exhibit and figured it would be a natural fit.

“It demonstrates the life of Jesus in a very animated way,” he said.

Faith in clay

Gaudreault (1932-2000) was a farmer and a provincial milk inspector who, at 48, discovered he had a talent for clay sculpture, Turcotte said.

“He was very keen on history,” she said, and sought to preserve Canada’s past in his work.

Gaudreault crafted some 1,000 works of various sizes in 15 years depicting scenes from early Canada, many of which are now in private collections. In 1996, he was diagnosed with terminal leukemia and told he had a year to live. Shaken, he told his friends he wanted to pay homage to God for a good life and spent two years creating the Jesus collection – his last work.

The sculptures are now behind glass in a large trailer modified to serve as a classroom. Half depict the early life of Christ, and half portray the Passion of Christ (the events leading up to his death).

The sculptures are made from the reddish-brown clay of southern Ontario and painted in muted, earthy colours that you would have seen in Christ’s time, Turcotte said. The clothes, trees, and structures also match that time period.

Gaudreault worked 10 to 12 hours a day with only simple hand tools to create these works, Turcotte said. Some were so big that they couldn’t fit in the kiln and had to be baked in pieces.

“He is so meticulous in his choice of details,” she said.  You can see the pain in Mary’s face as she is turned away from the inn, the wrinkles around Jesus’s eyes, and the wracked and twisted branches of ancient olive trees.

Gaudreault also had a sense of humour, Turcotte said – several of the figures in the exhibit are modelled after his friends, and at least one is modelled after him.

Turcotte leads about five classes a day through the exhibit, pointing out these and other facts about the works and teaching students about art, language, and religion.

Grade 6 student Ryan Cloutier said he was impressed by the level of detail Gaudreault showed in his works.

“It’s definitely worth it if you want to see it.”

The exhibit will travel to eight other GSACRD schools before it leaves for Edmonton at the end of October, Keohane and Turcotte said. (It will be at Neil M. Ross on Monday.)

The exhibit will be open to the public for free at Holy Family Parish on Sept. 23 from 4 to 7 p.m. and on Sept. 24 from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

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Kevin Ma

Kevin Ma joined the St. Albert Gazette in 2006. He writes about Sturgeon County, education, the environment, agriculture, science and aboriginal affairs. He also contributes features, photographs and video.