It’s a lovely view from the sitting room of Herbert F. Hopkins’ home overlooking Quidi Vidi Lake.
But the view in the dining room is even more impressive.
Perched on his dining room table, illuminated by two table-top spotlights on tripods, sits an astounding woodcarving depicting a panoramic skyline and cityscape of St. John’s.
“It was a year and a half in the making,” Hopkins says, smiling, humbled by the compliments and positive reaction to his work during a recent visit to his house. “I’m very happy with how it turned out.”
The two-panel wood relief carving is made from solid cherry (the light wood) and walnut, which is the dark wood that makes the skyline. It’s finished with a light coating of polyurethane to protect the wood.
Hopkins created the wood panels by cutting and laminating solid wooden boards, which he then hand-carved, using about a half-dozen chisels of various sizes. Each panel measures 60 cm x 1.2 cm x 44.5 cm.
He’s dubbed it “City of Dreams,” taking the term from the legendary musician, the late Ron Hynes, who Hopkins thought first used it. He found out later it was actually first penned by author Bryan Hennessey.
Either way, he felt it suited the piece perfectly.
“I've always loved that turn of phrase for St. John's, albeit not the true slogan for St. John's,” he said, referring to the city’s slogan City of Legends. “I used the City of Dreams because I think it speaks of the city more so than the City of Legends. Its character is very dream-like, very mystical. You get a sense of that from the work.”
Originally from Nova Scotia, Hopkins moved to St. John’s 42 years ago and landed his first teaching position in 1976. He had planned to stay only a few years, but ended up teaching here for 30 years in the industrial arts program (now technology education).
“Obviously, I'm still enamoured by the place,” said Hopkins, who had a basic knowledge of woodworking, but taught himself how to relief carve for smaller spaces with smaller tools when he retired in 2006. “It still resonates with me an awful lot."
It was that love of the city that inspired him to take on his latest piece, which was his most challenging, yet most fulfilling, of all his pieces.
“My work is a mirror of place, some say a love story to place,” Hopkins wrote in his artist statement. “The place is St. John’s, Newfoundland, and I am seduced by its architecture, its people, its history and its stories. The natural environment is important, but the human story moves me most, my pen.”
With a passion for the arts, Hopkins is also a talented musician, poet and author.
His book of poetry, “A High of Zero,” the original volume with hand-carved walnut covers, resides in the Rare Books Collection of the National Library of Canada in Ottawa.
Hopkins — a former blues band member who enjoys playing folk tunes on his guitar — has also written three novels — “The Book of Luke” in 2010, “Temperance Street” in 2014 and “New Found Land,” released last year. In all three, the main character is Luke Delaney, but Hopkins is quick to point out that the real central character is the city of St. John’s.
“It’s as much about this beautiful place as it is about anything. I think that's the essence of my work and finally, I’ve done this,” he said, pointing to the “City of Dreams” carving.
“This is a culmination of how I love this place.”
Hopkins — who plans to release his three books as a trilogy, “Luke and the City of Dreams” in the near future — decided to include Luke in his carving.
"I figured I'd put a little, tiny Luke in there just to make it a little bit more magical," he said, smiling. “I won't tell you where, but he’s there.”
The scene for the carving was taken from a series of photos Hopkins took during a walk with his wife, Jane, on the south side of the city in the summer of 2017. He bound three photos together to make the scene.
“Virtually every house I saw from across there is there. There was nothing left out. Every building is exactly as it was. There's nothing that's fictional. It's true to form. … There's like a thousand windows. Maybe I should've called it ‘City of Windows,’” he said, laughing.
However, he admits he didn’t put too much focus on, “that monstrosity,” the Atlantic Place parking garage.
"I've just kind of ignored it (in the carving)," he added, laughing. "I've made it there and put a couple of ships in front of it just to cover it up because it destroys the beauty of the old city. … So, I just left it under-articulated.”
Much of Hopkins’ work was completed on the top floor of a two-storey storage shed outside his house.
As he walks toward the shed, he jokes about the lack of snow along the path to the entrance due to the many trips he’s made back and forth throughout the winter.
The 12 x 14, second-floor room includes a small bench and a big window that shows the same amazing view overlooking the lake.
“It was a magnificent place to allow me to work. It was very quiet, peaceful,” he said. “I’d work here for hours every day, listening to music. It was so therapeutic.”
And so very worth it to him to see the completed work.
The piece is for sale and Hopkins hopes it finds an owner who will hang it in a public space in St. John’s, the city that captured his heart.