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Eleanor Milne, pictured in 1971, carves John Cabot as part of her History of Canada frieze for the Parliament Buildings. (Lawrence Hayward Collection)
Eleanor Milne, pictured in 1971, carves John Cabot as part of her History of Canada frieze for the Parliament Buildings. (Lawrence Hayward Collection)

The creative life of Eleanor Milne was carved in stone Add to ...

She continued to create until a few months before her death on May 17, 2014, just days after her 89th birthday, of what her family calls “old age.”

Born on May 14, 1925, Rose Eleanor Milne was surrounded by art and design from the start. Her dad, William Harold Milne, was a naval architect who worked at the thriving shipyard in Saint John. “I could read a ship’s plan as soon as I could read,” Ms. Lambert recalls.“Eleanor had dyslexia and could not read until later, but she could read a ship’s plan.”

Though she struggled with the written word, art came easily to her, a skill her mother, Eleanor Mary, encouraged. By age five, she was drawing accomplished pictures of horses and brides. “All her life, in all her artwork there was always action,” recalls Ms. Lambert, a trained architect and painter herself. (Their younger brother Bill became a naval architect.) She recalls one picture of a bride who was running with an outstretched hand holding a cigarette, with veil and train and smoke sailing behind her. Ms. Milne’s horses were also always running. (She once did a self-portrait of herself falling off a horse.)

The family moved to Montreal when the children were still young and Mr. Milne went into private practice as a naval architect. At the Sacred Heart School of Montreal, where the girls went to high school, Ms. Milne was celebrated for having perfect pitch: She was used to tune the choir. There, a clever teacher decided to try to teach Ms. Milne her Latin by singing it. The trick worked and reading then became easier. She soon became a voracious reader and by the end of high school was serving as head girl. (Writing, meanwhile, never came easily to her; the textual component of her book required considerable support from her editor.)

She won a scholarship to attend the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts School of Art and Design, where she studied under Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer. Her art schooling continued at the Central School of Arts and Crafts, in London, and the Montreal School of Fine Arts. At one point, she took a medical-school anatomy class at McGill and ended up drawing an operation performed by the famous neurosurgeon Wilder Penfield. She finished her formal studies by doing a master’s degree at Syracuse University under sculptor Ivan Mestrovic.

For the next decade, Ms. Milne worked as a freelance artist, doing stained glass, engraving, sculpture and other work, and living for a time at her parents’ summer home near Wakefield, Que., where she set up a studio in a bunkhouse.

When the Dominion Sculptor job was posted in 1962, she won the position over 20 other applicants – all men. She relocated to Ottawa and eventually moved into an apartment on the top floor of her aunt’s home in the Glebe neighbourhood, where her mother had grown up. After her aunt’s death, she took over the house and lived there for the rest of her life.

As a friend and a professional, Ms. Milne was extremely giving, particularly when it came to her skills as an artist. She’d gently critique her sister’s paintings, (the two lived in Ottawa and remained close their whole lives), saying simply “put a little blue in that area.” And it would often solve the problem.

Mary Crnkovich, a former lawyer who took up sculpture late in life, contacted Ms. Milne in 2003 to ask her advice, and the two become friends. “They look like muffins,” Ms. Milne said once of some morning glories in a carving. She took the chisel in her shaking hands and transformed the piece. “She exposed it right before my eyes,” Ms. Crnkovich recalls. Ms. Milne then patiently talked her friend through doing the task herself.

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