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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 ...

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.

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.

Her kindness had an edge, however. “She was very humble but confident at the same time. She didn’t suffer fools,” Ms. Crnkovich recalls. “She was very frank. She said exactly what was on her mind,” says John Flood, owner of Penumbra Press, which published Carved in Stone. Ms. Lambert recalls her sister being frustrated at her cautiousness when they were children. “I don’t understand why you don’t give your opinion on everything right away!” young Eleanor cried. “Sometimes, I don’t have an opinion yet,” Barbara replied. “I always have an opinion,” Eleanor told her.

Throughout her long life, Ms. Milne kept on learning and advancing her craft. In her 80s, when she bought her first Apple computer, she struggled at first with the new technology. “I hate this Mac!” she told friends. “I don’t know why they said it was easier.” Soon enough, however, she’d mastered the new tool and was creating impressive computer art.

Also while in her 80s, she visited an Ottawa elementary school to talk about art. The computers went down and none of the teachers could fix them. A Grade 4 student had to step in. “You have a responsibility to learn this stuff,” Ms. Milne berated the teachers. “These children can teach you and you should be learning.”

This frankness was well balanced by a strong sense of humour and a lot of quirkiness. Ms. Milne, a lover of dogs and nature, would often stop to admire ants and other insects. She was interested in cars and at one point drove around in a huge white Buick station wagon with wood panelling on the sides. She collected bits and bobs from her travels, though few of them were truly valuable art pieces and were often just things that she liked or had meaning for her. She also collected stuffed animals. Often very big ones.

Near the end of her life, she began giving things away, and gave her niece Alexandra Lambert a stuffed polar bear. Later, she told her that the toy had a “little friend” she should find in the house, which Ms. Lambert eventually figured out was a little knitted dinosaur. When she asked if the toy had a name, she was told she should name it, but that Ms. Milne wasn’t sure if it was male or female. “It’s hard to tell. He’s a bit of a cross dresser,” she said.

Friends, family and colleagues recall her incredible sense of basic design, line and visual perception. Ms. Milne could draw, sculpt and create just about anything. MP Lois Brown spoke of Ms. Milne in the House of Commons after her death, suggesting her colleagues look around them to see how her work transformed their workplace. “She altered the very fabric of this building using a mallet, a chisel, and a brilliant artistic mind.”

Eleanor Milne leaves her sister, Ms. Lambert, and 10 nieces and nephews.

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