For more than 30 years, Brian Clemence spent his winters chiselling blocks of snow, carving intricate sculptures for Ottawa’s Winterlude festival.
But for a few days last week, Clemence’s final sculpture stood unfinished at the corner of Bank Street and Fifth Avenue in the Glebe.
Clemence died suddenly last Tuesday afternoon. After spending the morning hewing blocks of snow, he suffered a heart attack while driving home.
His final piece was a tribute to Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie — a commission that Clemence’s son, Frédéric, said his father was thrilled to receive.
“He wanted to bring peace to Gord Downie,” Frédéric said. “And now … I want to bring peace to my dad.”
That same night, Frédéric decided he would finish his father’s final sculpture.
“It was the idea of touching the same snow, being with his tools, using his tools,” Frédéric said, remembering the time spent working with his father over the years.
“I just wanted to give [something] back and be closer in these last moments.”
‘So much fun’
To complete the project, Frédéric enlisted the help of his brother-in-law Émile Maheu.
Taking a break from chiselling, Maheu described his late father-in-law as a consummate artist who was happiest when working on a project — preferably outside in the snow, surrounded by friends and family.
“If I made a mistake, he’d always help me fix it,” Maheu chuckled, remembering the last time they worked on a sculpture together, some 20 years ago in Gatineau’s Jacques-Cartier Park.
“It was like going down south for him. He just had so much fun.”
An enormous loss
It’s that same passion for snow sculpting that Winterlude co-ordinator Serge Richer remembers, too.
For the past 20 years, Richer and Clemence got together for a month or two every winter, working to install snow sculptures across Ottawa-Gatineau.
Every year, festival labourers would ask to work with Clemence, said Richer, who described his colleague’s death as an enormous loss to Ottawa’s snow sculpting community.
“Some [artists] are a little harder to work with, but with Brian, it was so easy,” Richer said.
“No matter the weather, no matter the work to be done, it wasn’t work,” he said. “It was just [about] having fun.”
On Saturday morning, fellow Winterlude sculptor Jocelyn Galipeau visited Frédéric Clemence and Maheu to offer his condolences and support.
Galipeau was set to work with Brian Clemence in Jacques-Cartier Park on Tuesday night when he learned of his death.
Although he offered to complete Clemence’s sculpture, Galipeau said he was thrilled when he learned Frédéric had picked up his father’s tools.
“It really warms my heart. I would like my son to do the same thing for me,” Galipeau said, watching Frédéric chip away at a block of snow.
Describing Clemence as one of Ottawa’s most experienced and accomplished ice sculptors, Galipeau said he’s relieved passersby will be able to see his colleague’s final project.
“It is important for a work to be finished,” Galipeau said.
“You can discover the essence of the artist in it.”
As for Frédéric Clemence, he seems in no rush to finish the sculpture, working patiently and remaining faithful to his father’s advice.
“He always kept to the idea of going at a steady pace, looking at every angle,” he said.
It’s lessons like those that Frédéric says he’ll carry beyond this last project with his father.
“He was always about enjoying every second of life,” he said. “That’s how he was with snow sculpting.”