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Baby Jesus head sculptor finally breaks her silence

Heather Wise tells Sudbury.com, in her own words, what it was like to be in the eye of a social media hurricane

By: Heather Wise

This all started when I was walking downtown and noticed that the Mother Mary statue was holding baby Jesus with a decapitated head. I felt sad the moment I saw it, sad that the statue was damaged, but also very sad for the person who did it.

How sick or negative could a person be to vandalize a sacred statue, and especially to decapitate and steal the head of baby Jesus? I am not a religious person, but I have a decent human respect for people’s places of worship, and the beautiful Catholic statues are art enjoyed by people of all beliefs.

A couple of months later, a Catholic friend and I went to the church to enjoy the statues and greenery. We sadly looked at the statue of Mary and her headless baby Jesus. Although my artwork is mostly paintings and masks, thinking out loud, I told my friend, “I’m an artist — I should sculpt a new head.” I figured I would do it for free, as helping out the church would be payment enough.

“Well then why don’t you do it?” she said. “Let’s talk to the priest right now.”

The priest and his secretary were very grateful and kind. All I asked for were the art supplies to do the work.

The original head was stolen the year before on Devil’s Night, the night before Halloween. With the one-year anniversary of the decapitation around the corner, I wanted to make a temporary head to give the headless statue back its basic dignity, and then spend the winter carving a new permanent head out of stone.

The idea I came up with was to make a temporary head out of air-drying clay. I would sand, paint and varnish it to protect it from the elements. Plus, it would be an inexpensive temporary solution.

However, when I went to the arts supply store, the white clay was sold out. The only type left was orange terracotta, and with the cold weather fast approaching, I wanted to get the temporary head in place while the weather was with me. Plus, I planned to sand and paint it white anyways, so the orange colour didn’t matter.

I checked the weather the night before and it wasn’t supposed to rain for two days.

Now, I made the temporary head knowing it would look differently once it had dried. The clay shrinks. But, since the forecast wasn’t calling for rain, I thought there would be time for it to dry and contract, before finely sanding the features and paint it white.

The priest and I contacted various media outlets, and Northern Life/Sudbury.com came to do a story on the theft of the head and my efforts to replace it. The reporter took a picture of me putting the replacement head on Jesus’ body. Ironically (in hindsight), I was hoping for a lot of media attention.

That night it rained for hours. I knew the clay head would be melted. I thought it would probably be disintegrated.

I went to take a look at the sculpture, expecting the worst, and that’s pretty much what I found. The rain had soaked into the head, making the features puff up and distort. Runny clay had flowed off the face, making it even more strange looking.

The statue people saw was more the result of rain, than my artistic abilities. The result was not the statue I planned or originally sculpted and I am the first one to think it looked odd.

Undaunted, I was ready to make a new temporary Jesus head. Not being online at the time, I had no idea what was happening on the internet. Someone had posted a picture of the baby Jesus with the rain-soaked terracotta head, and millions of people were reacting to it.

My friends were quite concerned, but they let me know what was happening and showed me the comments. They showed me an Instagram page someone had created that was inspired by the baby Jesus head. The priest, Fr. Gérald Lajeunesse, and my wonderful friends (and many internet strangers) stuck up for me, and I’m very grateful for that.

Having millions of people focus that much negativity on you or about you can be very draining.

I was surprised at how negative the comments were and how people attacked my art, but also my motives for trying to fix the sculpture. I was accused of being the antichrist. People calling themselves Christians wanted to burn me at the stake. I received death threats.

I had to lie in bed for a couple of days because the attention was overwhelming. I laid low and was actually concerned for my physical safety.

Despite how I was feeling about the attention, I was delighted to see my friends defend my character and my intentions toward the baby Jesus sculpture. When Mark Gentili, the editor of the Northern Life/Sudbury.com, published the opinion piece “Don’t let them get you down Heather Wise”, it couldn’t have come at a better time.

I was also impressed that so many reasonable people publicly objected to the attacks, questioning how decent or Christian it is to judge, hate, threaten or call someone names. Some people actually believe there is worse behavior than someone volunteering to fix a statue. Some people got a good laugh and saw humor. The majority of that laughter was good-hearted and I am happy so many people had a good laugh.

No one laughed at the Instagram page more than I did. 

The head even inspired discussions on the nature of Jesus and the pitfalls of being judgmental. Some questioned how people could argue that the full lips and a wide nose of the terracotta head were ugly. Others thought it was beautiful. Eye of the beholder. Others asked a valid philosophical question: Isn’t Jesus’ existence a little bit more important than what he looked like as a baby?

I am an educated artist with 300 works to my name. I’ve been part of a number of exhibitions and have sold my work. Even famous and respected artists have received flack for some of their works. People attack, controversy ensues, discussion begins. Art should inspire debate.

That Instagram account that photoshopped my head onto more famous bodies — Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Justin Trudeau, Darth Vader, ET the Extra-Terrestrial, the Big Nickel — was great. I was flattered my art got such a reaction. The head became a meme, inspiring people to use their creativity and make something funny, all for a good laugh.

God works in mysterious ways. He made it rain on my head, the head got publicity, and now a piece of art I created has been in every major newspaper on the planet, on major television news stations and on websites the world over.

Most importantly though, because of the publicity and the controversy, the original stolen head was returned, and some kind person has donated the cost to repair and restore the statue to its original state. I couldn’t be happier.

It was not easy to be on the receiving end of so much attention. But looking back now, I see it as a blessing in disguise. Every negative can be turned into a positive. It also gave me some insight into how famous people live in the eye of the media and how they can be totally misunderstood, and unreasonably hated. It gave me a new kind of empathy.

Negative people wanted to tear me down, but I got publicity you can’t buy, and I chose to see the reaction, good and bad, as empowering. What did all the cruel commenters want me to do? They wanted me to feel bad about my art, or about who or what I am. Well I chose to do something else instead. I chose to listen to all the godly and supportive comments. I chose to be proud that my art inspired so much comedy and laughter.

I chose to use the greatest weapon there is to react to their negativity: love. Yes, I genuinely love the haters. And I am grateful for the entire experience and feel privileged to have sculpted a world-famous baby Jesus head.

Heather Wise is an artist who lives and works in Greater Sudbury.