Parliament’s sculptors have new blanks to carve

Sculptor Nicholas Thompson and a plaster cast of a Parliament Hill “grotesque” he is recreating. The original was weathered, so he’s making a restored copy of it, in stone, that will be swapped in for the original. (Jack Hanna/The BUZZ)
Sculptor Nicholas Thompson and a plaster cast of a Parliament Hill “grotesque” he is recreating. The original was weathered, so he’s making a restored copy of it, in stone, that will be swapped in for the original. (Jack Hanna/The BUZZ)

This article has had additional photos added from the printed version.

Jack Hanna

The sculptors on staff on Parliament Hill have been handed one of the most spectacular opportunities in the history of Canada to showcase their art.

A huge new three-storey visitor welcome centre is being created underground in front of the Centre Block. That new centre will be full of the works of Parliament’s sculptors.

“This is the biggest opportunity since the Parliament Buildings were built,” says Dominion Sculptor John-Philippe Smith.

Hordes of visitors will pass through the visitor centre each year. They will walk amongst the sculptures that Smith and his team of seven sculptors will be creating.

Parliament’s sculptors are not being selfish. The new showcase will – over the passage of time – display more than their work. They will provide lots of blank slabs of stone for the use of future sculptors. The story of Canada is forever unfolding and future artists will continue to tell that story.

“There will be canvasses for generations and generations of sculptors to come,” says Smith. “Someday we will hand over our mallets and chisels to the next generation.”

Leaving space for future sculptors has a long history on The Hill. The Centre Block was destroyed by fire in 1916. When it was rebuilt, architect John Pearson created hundreds of spaces for future sculptors to create works – and left them blank.

“There was almost no sculpture in the new building,” says Smith. “Subsequent generations of carvers came in at night and worked those blocks.”

Sculptors kept creating new works for two-thirds of a century. However, by the 1980s, the good spots were gone and the creation of sizeable new works dwindled.

With the huge new opportunity of the visitor centre, the sculptors will tell in stone the stories of more recent milestones in Canada’s history: for instance, the Constitution of 1982 and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

The Parliament team will commission artists from across Canada, including Indigenous artists, and incorporate their works in the visitor centre.

Consultations will be conducted with Indigenous groups to ensure their stories are well presented.

And the sculptors will incorporate a variety of media, not just stone, but also wood, glass, copper, and bronze.

Smith says planning for the visitor centre still is at the ideas stage; nothing about the artistry has been confirmed.

A Dominion Sculptor team member builds up deteriorated Parliamentary sculptural elements in plaster on the existing stone. This will serve as a model to then carve in stone. (Government of Canada)
A Dominion Sculptor team member builds up deteriorated Parliamentary sculptural elements in plaster on the existing stone. This will serve as a model to then carve in stone. (Government of Canada)

Mending the past

In the meantime, Parliament’s sculptors are busy.

The Parliament Buildings are choc-a-block with sculpture, the bulk of it fanciful demons, monsters, mythical creatures, and cartoonish faces. It is Neo-Gothic art, beloved by Victorians. Much of it needs repair or replacement.

The 12-year restoration of the Centre Block now underway provides the opportunity to restore existing sculptures that have weathered or aged. For instance, the sculptors can set up scaffolding to reach inconveniently located pieces high up near the ceiling in the House of Commons and the Senate Chamber.

A Dominion Sculptor team member sculpts missing components on a copy of a deteriorated Parliamentary sculpture, The Pipe Man. Once completed, another final copy will be cast in plaster and used as a model (maquette) to then carve in stone. (Government of Canada)
A Dominion Sculptor team member sculpts missing components on a copy of a deteriorated Parliamentary sculpture, The Pipe Man. Once completed, another final copy will be cast in plaster and used as a model (maquette) to then carve in stone. (Government of Canada)

Some existing sculptures can be repaired in place, while still mounted in the wall. A crack can be filled with mortar. Where a nose or chin is missing, a new bit can be created and mortared and pinned in place.

However, if a piece is significantly deteriorated, it needs to be re-created.

A Dominion Sculptor team member replicates a new copy of a deteriorated bison. Here, Danny is adjusting the depth gage on a traditional pointing machine to capture a point in space, and then transfer this point to the new carving. (Government of Canada)
A Dominion Sculptor team member replicates a new copy of a deteriorated bison. Here, Danny is adjusting the depth gage on a traditional pointing machine to capture a point in space, and then transfer this point to the new carving. (Government of Canada)

This starts with the creation of an exact plaster model of the existing piece.Then the sculptor uses old photos or similar pieces of sculpture to determine what the original looked like before it was weathered and worn. The sculptor augments the plaster model, adding pieces to bring the work back as close as possible to what it looked like originally. The result is a plaster model of what the final work needs to be.

Then the sculptor applies his artistry; the sculpting of stone begins.

The stone used today, Berea Sandstone, comes from the same quarry, in Cleveland, Ohio, as the original stone sculpted a century ago.

Parliament’s sculptors say they are restoring quality art. “The sculptors who worked on these buildings did amazing work,” says Smith.

A Dominion Sculptor team member builds up deteriorated Parliamentary sculptural elements in plaster on the existing stone. This will serve as a model to then carve in stone. (Government of Canada)
A Dominion Sculptor team member builds up deteriorated Parliamentary sculptural elements in plaster on the existing stone. This will serve as a model to then carve in stone. (Government of Canada)

Even though it is restoring the work of another, it still is art. Says sculptor Anna Williams, “If you are the maker, it is so tangible. You push a line across the stone, and everything comes into place. You get the light and shadow just right.”

Williams says she is gratified she possesses the skills to restore the works of bygone sculptors to ensure their art endures into the future.

“It makes me feel small and big in the same moment.”

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