A sculptor carves a family home in Sandy Hill

Christine Aubry

As soon as I heard that I had a new Blackburn Avenue neighbour with a fascinating career, I knew it was a story to share with IMAGE readers.

Nicholas ‘Nick’ Thompson is a sculptor, which in itself makes him a rare bird — but he is also Assistant to the Dominion Sculptor of Canada. There aren’t many of those! To be precise, there are currently three assisting John-Philippe Smith who is Canada’s seventh Dominion Sculptor.

Although Nick Thompson and his family are not new to Sandy Hill, having lived on Besserer Street since they moved to Ottawa from Toronto four years ago, they are very happy to have serendipitously become homeowners on one of the best streets in Sandy Hill, in my humble opinion.

The family of four first landed in Sandy Hill when they googled “neighbourhoods within walking distance of Parliament Hill.” Nick tells me he immediately loved the rich architectural history and beauty of Sandy Hill — the variety of building types and materials, the mature trees, the history of the neighbourhood.

“A lot of older parts of Toronto have just one housing type,” he explains. “Here in Sandy Hill, we have this great variety of housing types and building materials. I think it’s really important to preserve this historical building stock. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Nick studied architectural history and began his career in heritage planning, but soon realized his yearning to work with his hands could not keep him behind a desk. He found one of the few places in the world where one can still study traditional Western stone carving — a specialized school in England, the City & Guilds of London Art School, where the curriculum has essentially been unchanged since the early nineteenth century.

Nick’s work can be found on historical buildings and churches in several countries, but he tells me his most exciting moment was shortly after graduation, when he won a competition to carve a mother and child figure on Guildford Cathedral outside of London. Every morning for three months, he would climb the bell tower stairs at sunrise, to work on the eight-foot (2.5 m) tall carving from a small, open-air scaffold, high up on the cathedral tower.

Nick’s journey eventually found him working on the West Block restoration of Parliament Hill, and in 2018 he officially became Assistant to the Dominion Sculptor of Canada, a permanent lifetime position.

Nick explains the role of the parliamentary sculpting team: “We are the creators and stewards of sculpture — be it wood, stone, plaster — on Parliament Hill and for all of the Government of Canada, though most of the work is based in the National Capital Region. We ensure that all restoration work is done respectfully, and we also design and create new work.” Amazingly, all of this work is still mostly done the old-fashioned way, with hammer and chisel.

In 1916, during the post-fire restoration of Centre Block, architect John Pearson intentionally left thousands of uncarved stone blocks so that successive generations of carvers could leave their artistic mark. The current restoration process offers Nick and his colleagues an amazing opportunity to access areas that would otherwise pose challenges for carving.

In his spare time, Nick also has his own private fine art practice with a studio in the Rectory Art House of Saint Brigid’s Centre for the Arts on Murray Street. He submits work to exhibitions and does commission work. You can see photos of Nick’s work on his website: https://www.nicholasthompson.ca/, or on Instagram: @njthompson_sculpture

And coming up very soon, you can head down to the Sparks Street Mall from June 24 to 26 for the Canadian Stone Carving Festival, to see Nick and other artists work on pieces that will then be auctioned off on the last day of the festival, to raise money for Ottawa Innercity Ministries. For more details on this event, visit https://canadianstonecarvingfestival.com

Nicholas Thompson, artist, carver and Assistant to the Dominion Sculptor of Canada, with his family on the steps of their new home on Blackburn Avenue. Nick’s wife Mia Hunt is known to the Viscount Alexander Elementary School community, having been the Co-Chair of the Viscount Parent Council for several years. Their children, Phoebe (age 5) and Rowan (age 9) both attend Viscount. Were it not for Mia’s support of Nick’s unusual career choice, they may never have become our neighbours.