The first time Rose Eleanor Milne’s mother gave her a pencil, she drew a perfect circle. Her mother, a painter herself, was wonderstruck. “How do you draw, Eleanor?” she asked the preschooler not long after, when the tall, fair-haired child was already showing an amazing adeptness for the visual arts. “First I think, then I draw my think,” she replied.
For most of her 89 years, Eleanor Milne (she never went by Rose, just used R. Eleanor sometimes in her professional work) used her unique combination of thought and action to create an impressive body of work of drawings, sculptures and computer art.
Most notably, on behalf of the government of Canada, she transformed the Parliament Buildings with her monumental History of Canada frieze and 12 stained-glass windows in the House of Commons. She also oversaw the restoration of the House’s linen ceiling and designed its 14 Origin of Life in Canada stone carvings. She also designed pieces for other government buildings across the country, including the chair for the speaker of the council of the Northwest Territories.
This work was done during Ms. Milne’s 31-year tenure as the country’s Dominion Sculptor. Her first decade on the job, starting in 1962, saw her transform the foyer of the Centre Block with the frieze, an artwork carved directly into the limestone of the building’s mezzanine walls that runs nearly 40 metres long by 1.5 metres high.
She spent months poring over materials at the Library of Parliament, and travelling across the U.S. and Europe to develop the design for this ambitious project. Then, on and off for 12 years, she and her team worked from 11 p.m. until 6 a.m., carving depictions of Inuit life, the travels of John Cabot, Samuel de Champlain meeting with native people, the Battle of Queenston Heights and the Yukon gold rush. Ms. Milne drew out the design in full scale, laid it on the scaffolding and transferred it onto the stone by eye. “She didn’t have to measure. Just by looking she got it right,” her sister, Barbara Lambert, says.
Not only did Ms. Milne and her team have to deal with disrupted sleep schedules, their work was also frequently interrupted when important dignitaries visited Ottawa and the scaffolding had to be removed. Meanwhile, the temperature in the mezzanine would reach 32 C in the winter, and hotter in the summer.
Known as a generous person, Ms. Milne avoided the limelight and always spoke of her work as a team effort. In 1971, she helped Maurice Joanisse get a job as a labourer cleaning up the stones in the Centre Block – she had worked with his father, an engraver. She quickly realized that the young man, who had no formal art education, had talent, and she moved him to her carving team and mentored him for the next two decades. He eventually became her successor when she retired in 1993.
“She taught me everything that I needed about carving and designing. She was a great teacher,” Mr. Joanisse says. “She was very patient and she gave me and all the other carvers a lot of liberty. She would design a piece but it was up to us to implement it.”
And while she liked to share the credit, she never shirked from the hard work at hand. Mr. Joanisse would remind her when it was time for a dinner break while she worked the night shift with her crew. “I’m too busy,” she’d often say, and keep going.
After her retirement, Ms. Milne continued to live in Ottawa and work on private commissions and her own work, making sculptures in various media and also painting and drawing. In 2003, she authored a book on her Parliament Hill work, called Captured in Stone. In her 80s, when her hands were too shaky for carving, she taught herself how to create on a computer.
For her impressive body of work, Ms. Milne was awarded the Centennial Medal in 1967, the 125th Anniversary of the Confederation of Canada Medal in 1992 and named a member of the Order of Canada in 1988. She has honorary doctorates from Carleton, University of Windsor, Queen’s and York.
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