Captured In Stone

September 1, 2001 by James Hale

Federal Sculptor Maurice Joanisse translates a concept into a finished sculpture.

“One of the best things about this job is helping to show the history of the country so people realize what we have here,” says Maurice Joanisse, Canada’s current official sculptor. As he speaks, on the second-floor gallery above the entrance to the House of Commons, one of an unending flow of school groups chatter noisily below. Looking up from their vantage point, the huge, vaulted space is alive with stonework tracing the story of Canada from the arrival of the Vikings through the expulsion of the Acadians and beyond.

The series of bas-relief carvings is where Joanisse began his 22-year apprenticeship in 1971. “I think the first thing I ever did was a little leaf over there somewhere,” he says, pointing between columns to one of the panels. His arms are long and muscular–the telltale sign of an artist who works with stone–and his hands are as rough as the surface of the material he brings to life each day. His coppery hair has gone sandy and a bit thin, but when he speaks about his work his face and lightly accented English become animated with a youthful enthusiasm that has never left him.

Gargoyles peer down at passersby while dinosaurs keep vigil. Women silently sing O Canada. A senator prepares for a round of golf. The walls of Canada’s Parliament Buildings may not tell the secrets they have heard over the years, but they talk in their own way. Everywhere inside and outside the buildings, which dominate the northern boundary of downtown Ottawa, the legacy of Canada’s four official sculptors and countless stonemasons and carvers captures the country’s history from the dawn of time.

When he came to the job, to study under Eleanor Milne–Canada’s third dominion sculptor–his only training had been in his father’s monument business. “I had no experience in carving or art, but I was familiar with stone and the tools it takes to work with it.”

Other requirements for the job were a night owl’s constitution and a saint’s patience. All the carving was done onsite, and work only began after the House rose for the day. “Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to set up our scaffolding until 1 or 2 a.m., and then we’d have to stop again to make way for the cleaning staff in the morning. It was difficult to make much headway.”

In those years, too, the sculptors worked in teams, with the master designing the various pieces and many hands wielding hammers and chisels. Today, Joanisse works alone on the stone inside the buildings. Since assuming Milne’s job in 1993, he has been without an apprentice, although he has hopes of being able to train one before his retirement. And, since the mid-70s, the carving for the Parliament Buildings has been done offsite, where the artists can work regular hours and take advantage of natural light.

Although Joanisse is called upon to work on other projects, such as designing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and adding details to the Royal Mint and Royal Military College in Kingston, Ont., the Parliament Buildings are his main ‘canvas’.

As he walks through the Centre Block–which houses the Commons, the Senate Chamber, committee rooms, the Memorial Chamber and Parliamentary Library–it is evident he knows the building with an intimacy no one else shares. For example, he knows that the early carvers used grey paint to highlight their work, rather than cut out more background to heighten the contrast of the main image. He can tell the subtle differences in style between one carver and another, and he knows which pieces of works in the public gallery of the Commons have been surreptitiously removed by souvenir-hunters. More importantly, he knows which spots remain empty, awaiting the products of his chisels. Those spots fuel his dreams and imagination. “The first time I saw the buildings, it was fantastic. The carvings are so fanciful, and up close you can see an amazing amount of detail.”

The Centre Block is considered to be one of the world’s best examples of Gothic revival architecture, complete with the pointed arches, prominent buttresses and contrasting stonework that characterize the style. Since 1916, the building has been something of a work-in-progress. Late on Feb. 3 of that year, fire broke out in a wastepaper basket. Within hours, the building was gutted. Only the magnificent Parliamentary Library, a circular edifice that sits behind the main building, was saved, thanks to the quick thinking of a clerk who closed the fireproof doors before making his exit. The only other things saved from the inferno were a pair of ceremonial chairs, which reportedly were dragged to a nearby cathedral by future prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, then a labour consultant for the Liberal party. A bell, which crashed down through the devastated Victoria Tower at the height of the fire, was salvaged from the ruins and mounted for display in later years.

Destroyed was Thomas Fuller’s ornate original, designed in 1859 and opened in 1866. In its place rose a more majestic, if somewhat less colourful, building, designed by the firm of Pearson & Marchand, and distinguished by its central tower–Victoria Tower until 1933; the Peace Tower thereafter.

Scores of stonemasons were employed in the reconstruction–enough to form a small camp east of Parliament Hill on what is now Sussex Drive. It took four years to get the buildings to the point where Parliament could move back in from its temporary home in the Victoria Memorial Museum Building, although work continued until the late ’30s. Even then, the designers left many spaces blank and many columns undecorated inside the building. In fact, the Parliament Buildings are the only federal buildings in North America where carving takes place on a full-time basis.

Joanisse sees his work as an extension of what was started back then. “What sets Canada apart when it comes to carving is that we’re still doing new work, while in the United States and Britain what you see is mostly restoration work.”

Canada does have its share of restoration work, too, some of which has seen various parts of the Parliament Buildings covered in scaffolding and draped in plastic for several years during the past decade. For three years of that period, Joanisse pursued a very different job from the one that normally occupies him. “The outside of the buildings have so much detail that no one really knew what was there. I had never seen most of it myself.”

For two summers, he rode a basket on the end of a crane around the buildings, photographing every detail and noting the condition, the type of stone used, and the location. “Right away I realized what poor condition some of the work was in. In many cases I had to take immediate action to secure pieces so they didn’t fall and injure someone. Overall, though, it was really a lot of fun because I got to see a lot of detailed work up close.”

In total, Joanisse catalogued more than 3,000 pieces that he considered ‘art’ on the buildings. Everything was entered into a computer database, allowing Public Works officials to track the progress of restoration. While Joanisse doesn’t do any restoration work himself, his expertise in the Gothic revival style is often called on when an original piece is too damaged to determine its original shape or size.

For the most part, Joanisse concentrates on filling the walls inside the Centre Block, a job that begins long before chisel meets stone.

Ideas for new carvings can come from any number of sources, including Members of Parliament or constitutional events, as in the case of a new coat of arms for Nunavut. But, in most cases, the official sculptor generates the ideas. New ideas must be approved by the House of Commons and, in particular, the Speaker, who is responsible for the Parliament Buildings. If the idea receives the go-ahead, Joanisse begins some initial research. “You can’t lose sight of the fact that what you’re creating is for posterity, so it’s very important that you inform yourself, as much as possible, about the subject before you start to design the work.”

The research helps Joanisse determine an initial design, which must again receive the Speaker’s approval. At that point, Joanisse often finds himself expanding his research, depending on the project. A case in point is The Prehistoric Life of Canada Series, which depicts dinosaurs, reptiles and vegetation from up to 400 million years ago. One of the concepts of the 14-part series that was mounted in the House of Commons in 1994 is that everything shown had to have come from the landmass that eventually formed Canada. Joanisse spent hours going over his plans with experts at the Canadian Museum of Nature, ensuring that every animal was anatomically correct. “Even then,” he laughs, “we ended up getting something wrong because of a new discovery that was made about one of the dinosaurs after the piece was finished.”

The next step in the planning process is a detailed design, usually a one-third scale model, which must be approved by a Commons committee and the Speaker. Only then can carving begin. It’s a process that can take years. “In the case of the Prehistoric Life series, that was something Eleanor proposed originally, but I did all the carving.”

He points out a set of large, vertical, drawings on his office wall. “Those are representations of various stages in the evolution of the planet. It’s another part of Eleanor’s idea that included the dinosaur carvings, but it never moved forward. I’m very keen on doing it, but I’m going to have to do some more research so I can present it again and get it to the next stage.”

Over on another wall are a more recent set of drawings, depicting some of the men responsible for the planning and construction of Canada’s rail system. Joanisse has identified an ideal spot for the series, just outside the Railway Committee Room in the Centre Block, but the project is rife with political sensitivities–even 106 years after the Last Spike was driven–and Joanisse is proceeding cautiously. “The good thing about this process is that I always have two or three projects on the go in various stages. Some days you just don’t feel like hammering away at the stone. In fact, some days you should not touch the stone because you’ll do more damage than good to it. So, on those days, I’ll spend my time reading, researching, preparing upcoming projects.”

In the end, while much of his job involves bureaucracy at the highest level, Joanisse is, after all, an artist. In all the talk about process and planning, it’s easy to forget that, until he starts to discuss the work. That’s when his passion becomes obvious.

While Joanisse’s career has been transformed by modern technology to the point where laser-etched motorcycles, 18-wheel trucks and likenesses of the deceased can appear on tombstones, his brand of sculpting hasn’t changed in thousands of years. “Just like the Greeks and Romans, you still use the hammer and chisel. It gives you time to think. I prefer to let the stone tell me what to do. As I carve, the figure I’m working on might move 20 or 30 times relative to the background. Also, unlike some carvers, I don’t cut out the background (to create the relief effect) until the very end. That way, the stone can still change its character.”

One of the hardest things for a carver to learn, he says, is to see things in three dimensions and to understand the viewer’s perspective. “Many of the pieces in the Centre Block are seen from 30 or 40 feet below, so you have to take that into consideration when you’re carving that on a bench in front of you. That was one of the advantages of working onsite; at least you could get off the scaffold and see your work from the ground. Now, it all has to be in your head.”

Although he is sometimes forced to work in Tyndall limestone–the native Manitoba product that makes up much of the interior of the Centre Block–he much prefers Indiana limestone for its uniform texture, fine grain and almost complete lack of fossils. And, while early official sculptors created plaster models and then had apprentices or employees transfer that design to the final stone, Joanisse draws directly on the stone. “That’s something that Eleanor began to do. It gave us a lot more freedom to interpret things and interact with the stone.”

Joanisse also likes the freedom he has to inject some whimsy into his work. He’s particularly fond of a small panel that represents the Senate, showing the human side of those who provide sober second thought–including one who’s decked out in golfing togs.

Joanisse has also pushed what can be done physically with limestone to the limit, a fact that’s attested to by one of his many carvings in the Commons’ public gallery. In a panel depicting the evolution of communications in Canada, he has created an incredible set of stone cables that wind around each other, seeming to defy what stone can be made to do.

Clearly, he has come a long way from etching out small leaves in the background of a much larger work. “I love the challenge of working within the Gothic tradition, yet creating things that are very symbolic. To do Gothic well, you really have to know human anatomy, because the tradition is all about distorting it, of making fun of it. Mind you, I’m still learning. It’s a never-ending process.”

But the end is coming for new work on Parliament Hill. Joanisse figures there are about 10,000 hours of carving left–enough to keep him busy for five or six years if he was to devote himself solely to carving. Given how much planning and researching goes into a project, the work will probably extend beyond his retirement, which is why he’s anxious to find someone to carry on the tradition. “There’s no school in Canada where you can learn to do this. This is a tradition and style you learn on the job the old-fashioned way.”

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