Driftwood Jesus: The Story Behind the Art

The Artist Behind the Crucifix on the Arons Family Parking Plaza


Mike Amato

Mike Amato stands in front of the driftwood crucifix on the Arons Family Parking Plaza.

Last year, when I was walking the track with some of my friends, I noticed a curious object on the side of the parking plaza. 

“What is that?” I wondered aloud, squinting upwards and gesturing for my friends to do the same. Upon closer inspection, we soon realized it was a crucifix made of wood. Branches of beige and dun intermingled to form the body and head of Jesus, whose timbered gaze kept constant watch over the football field. 

Students and teachers didn’t know how it got there, or who was behind it. The crucified Christ just appeared one day. 

Through our investigation we learned that in 2021, the remarkable statue was donated to the school by artist Mike Amato. It was created in honor of his late father James Amato, an alumnus of Notre Dame who graduated in 1955. 

Mike Amato creates unique and sacred art pieces, and while his creative talents are broad, he specializes in driftwood sculptures that are made from material he finds on the beaches of Ventura. He then donates these crucifixes to local churches, who display them gratefully, much like Notre Dame. 

The nickname “Driftwood Jesus”—a term used by many students and Amato himself—is actually a metaphor for the piece, symbolizing Jesus’ travels and ministry. 

“Driftwood [has] been broken and discarded. What was once a living breathing tree [has] been broken, destroyed, left for dead on the sandy beach. Like the tree, Jesus was broken, destroyed and left for dead. When I [picked] up the many broken pieces of driftwood and assembled them into the body of Christ it now is resurrected back to life, like Jesus,” Amato explained. 

His religious faith has been apparent since his childhood.

“My devotion to Christ stems from my Catholic upbringing. My parents were my role models and they set me on a path to walk with Jesus. I was sent to Catholic schools [so] that also helped to mold me into the artist I am today,” Amato said.

But Amato’s connection to Christ was stronger than even his parents could have imagined. 

At the age of five Amato spent a week in a coma as he battled pneumonia. When he awoke, he remembered that Jesus appeared to him, arms outstretched, and bathed in light.

He kept this very personal vision to himself for many years.

Then in February of 2017, at the age of 49, Amato suffered what is known as a “widow-maker” heart attack. 

According to Rev. Tom Stephen, the pastor at Monte Vista Presbyterian Church in Newbury Park, Amato’s life and faith reached a turning point, and he experienced a revelation.

In an interview with Dawn Megli-Thuna for a local newspaper in Ventura County, Amato said, “I woke up [from my second near-death experience] and realized that none of my possessions meant anything to me.”

Stephen, who visited Amato during his recovery, suggested that maybe God was communicating something to Amato–something He wanted him to do. “You can offer the hope of heaven, not just in theory, but in experience,” said Stephen (Megli-Thuna).

From visions, we faithful are assured that God is still at work in the world and is still communicating his revelation to humanity. It is through visions and visionaries that God can change people’s lives for the better.

Following his recovery, Amato created the Hound of Heaven Ministry, named after the Francis Thompson poem. Through this art ministry, Amato creates art of deceased loved ones and presents them to families to comfort them. These are not people he knows. 

In 2019, Amato created sketches of all 12 victims of the mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill. Each of the portraits meant so much to the families and helped them through their grieving process. 

Through his artwork, Amato assures everyone that God’s love is real and He is at work in the world.

Amato honors the legacy of his parents, particularly his father, through the special donation of the sculpture of the crucified Christ. 

Notre Dame High School is beyond grateful to have received the piece, and it will continue to be a topic of conversation and a sight that will instill wonder, admiration, and most importantly, faith and hope, for students and the entire community for years to come.

I fled Him down the nights and down the days

I fled Him down the arches of the years

I fled Him down the labyrinthine ways

Of my own mind, and in the midst of tears

I hid from him, and under running laughter.

― Francis Thompson, “The Hound of Heaven”