Family mourns death of sculptor by finishing frozen tribute to Gord Downie

At least two frozen sculptures of the late Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie have popped up in Ontario this winter, but for the family of a veteran Ottawa snow sculptor who died recently, finishing up their father’s last frosty creation was a tribute to both artists’ legacies.

Brian Clemence had spent two days chipping away at a hunk of snow when he died of a heart attack at the age of 60 last Tuesday, his children said, leaving his unfinished sculpture of Downie to harden in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood.

That night, his son Frederic Clemence resolved to complete his father’s final artwork based on his sketches.

“I wanted to bring peace to my father and Gord Downie, because both of them are great men, and both of them have given so much to me,” Clemence said. “It was a really great way to find peace for me and my sister in the last moments.”

Marissa Clemence said the project felt like a fitting tribute to both her father and Downie, who shared an uncompromising passion for the arts. Her father used to describe himself as a “mass-media artist,” she said, with a MacGyver-like ability to create with whatever materials he had at his disposal.

It was in that enterprising spirit that the family — also including the siblings’ stepbrother Emile Maheu — decided to escape their grief by throwing themselves into the days-long process of hewing what she described as a “three-tier square cake” into a snowy sculpture that would make their father proud.

“Just being able to touch the same snow, and be in the same space, and just bringing his vision of that sculpture to life … helped release a lot of anger and sadness and love at the same time,” she said.

Frederic Clemence said he heard his father’s voice giving him advice as he chiselled away at the three-metre sculpture of a feather-capped Downie holding a microphone.

“My dad always told me … take it easy, take it slow. The snow you take off takes a lot longer to put back on,” he said. “When he was talking about … the sculpture of (Downie), he talked about how great of a man he is, and you can’t take life for granted.”

Another sculpture of Downie is on display in his hometown of Kingston, Ont., where the Tragically Hip held their last concert before the singer died of brain cancer last October at the age of 53. The ice sculpture was carved by Peter Vogelaar of British Columbia.

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