Skip to content

Finesse and brute force: The artist behind the Senate of Canada Building’s bronze doors

Anyone who passes through the Senate of Canada Building’s south entrance can’t help but be impressed — and a little overwhelmed — by two shimmering monoliths that tower over the visitor.

Yet few people know they exist.

A set of hammer-formed bronze doors, created 50 years ago by Ottawa sculptor Bruce Garner, embellishes the south entrance to the building.

The entryway, which gives senators direct access to the Senate of Canada Building, is not normally accessible to the public.

Bronze medallions from <em>Reflections of Canada</em>.

The doors were installed in the spring of 1973 as the 60-year-old structure was being converted into a broadcast and hosting venue that would become known as the Government Conference Centre.

“Bruce took the same approach with those doors he did with every sculpture he created,” Tamaya Garner, the artist’s widow and long-time collaborator, said.

“He poured his blood and sweat into them.”

“He always said he left a little bit of himself in every work of art he produced.”

When they were unveiled, the doors — known as Reflections of Canada — were immediately the centre of international attention.

Queen Elizabeth admired them during her July 1973 Royal Visit.

Two days later, 24 world leaders passed through them as they arrived for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, where a ban on nuclear weapons testing dominated the discussion.

For four decades, the building hosted international conferences and federal-provincial first ministers’ talks.

In 2013, after years of slow decline, it received a new lease on life when the Senate chose to temporarily relocate there while Centre Block, its permanent home, underwent extensive restorations.

The Senate-supervised rehabilitation revived much of the former train station’s early 20th-century grandeur. Most fixtures from the 1970s were stripped out, with the notable exception of Mr. Garner’s bronze doors, which heritage appraisers described as distinctive and irreplaceable.

“Bruce always delivered more than the client expected,” Ms. Garner said. “During the initial presentation, the architect went into shock when he realized Bruce was talking about double doors nearly 20 feet high. Bruce didn’t bat an eye. He said, ‘You wanted ceremonial doors. I gave you ceremonial doors.’”

Mr. Garner’s exuberant abstract sculptures have become part of the fabric of Ottawa. Characterized by elongated figures dancing, running, leaping and flying, they dot the city, radiating a whimsical charm Canadians don’t immediately associate with the country’s buttoned-down capital.

“Bruce wanted people to feel at ease around his sculptures and engage with them,” Ms. Garner said. “Nothing made him happier than to see, for instance, one of the figures burnished smooth from people constantly touching it.”

Sculptor Bruce Garner in the early 2000s. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Tamaya Garner)

Born in Toronto, Mr. Garner studied at the Ontario College of Art and the University of Alberta. He worked as a graphic designer in Toronto and Vancouver, then moved to Edmonton in the early 1960s to become creative director at what was then Western Canada’s biggest advertising firm, James Lovick & Co.

He moved to Ottawa in 1967 to head up graphic design for the Department of Trade and Commerce.

In 1970, he gave up the life of a federal public servant to commit himself full time to sculpture, setting up in a former auto-repair shop in Ottawa’s Chinatown.

A few years later, he moved the studio into a converted barn in rural Plantagenet, 70 kilometres east of Ottawa.

Mr. Garner’s work combined finesse and brute force. He wielded an arsenal of hammers, lathes, grinders, band saws and welding torches to twist steel, copper and bronze into shape.

Newspaper articles described him as a “bear of a man.”

“Bruce was a paradox,” Ms. Garner said. “Here was this powerful, muscular guy whose hands could swing a 50-pound hammer and bend steel. At the same time, those hands could do the most delicate chalk drawings.”

“Bruce used to say he had the soul of a 98-pound ballerina.”

Ottawa sculptor Bruce Garner created these massive bronze doors in 1973 as Ottawa’s former downtown train station, now the Senate of Canada Building, was being renovated to become the Government Conference Centre. The eight roundels celebrate Canada’s regions with abstract depictions of landscapes and wildlife. (Bruce Garner, <em>Reflections of Canada</em>, 1973. Bronze, H: 5.5m x W: 3.5m x D: 0.5m)

The bronze doors are at the centre of a modernist addition, built to provide extra security when the Government Conference Centre hosted the 1973 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting.

Mr. Garner stands beside his 1970 work <em>Joy</em>, on Ottawa’s Sparks Street, in the early 2000s. (Bruce Garner, <em>Joy</em>, 1970. Bronze, H: 3m x W: 2m x D: 2m. Photo credit: courtesy of Tamaya Garner)
Mr. Garner’s <em>Territorial Prerogative</em>, depicting a mother grizzly fishing with her cub, stands near the sculpture Joy. (Bruce Garner, <em>Territorial Prerogative</em>, 1990. Bronze, H: 3m x W: 2m x D: 2m)

Mr. Garner prepares to shape a bronze cutout that would become the head of the grizzly bear in <em>Territorial Prerogative</em>. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Tamaya Garner)

Mr. Garner works on <em>Paso Doble</em> in his studio in Plantagenet, Ontario, in 2008. The five-metre bronze stands near the Canadian Museum of Nature in downtown Ottawa. (Photo credit: Courtesy of Tamaya Garner)


More on SenCA+

Back to top