After father's death, son sets out to finish final Winterlude sculpture

Brian Clemence, one of Ottawa's most experienced snow sculptors, died suddenly last Tuesday. His son Frédéric is now finishing his father's final project.

Experienced ice sculptor Brian Clemence died suddenly last Tuesday

Frédéric Clemence carves a block of snow at the corner of Bank Street and Fifth Avenue, left unfinished after his father died suddenly last Tuesday. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

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."

Frédéric Clemence holds up his father's sketch of Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

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.

Émile Maheu chips away at the snow sculpture his late father-in-law Brian Clemence started earlier this week. (Marc-André Cossette/CBC)

"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.

Brian Clemence was 60 years old when died last Tuesday. (Émile Maheu)

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."

Heartwarming gesture

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.

Winterlude artist Jocelyn Galipeau says Brian Clemence was among Ottawa's most experienced and accomplished snow sculptors. (CBC)

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."

Life lessons

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."

Brian Clemence had been building snow sculptures for more than 30 years before he died in January. (Supplied)