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Sculptor Frances Gage captured the 'essence of a woman'

Artist eked out a living from commissions and teaching, working for a time in Tom Thomson's old shack

Frances Gage in her garden at her home in Cobourg, ON in 2010.

Although Frances Gage's name is not widely known, the prolific sculptor leaves behind hundreds of bold, powerful works, some of which have become treasured features of the urban landscape in several Ontario communities.

The stunning Woman, a towering, column-like statue made of white Carrara marble, for example, presided for years over the entrance of Women's College Hospital in Toronto.

"She really captured the essence of a woman with very simple, long lines. That's the way she always did it," her niece Lynda Allman says of this work, which was the artist's favourite.

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Ms. Gage, who died on Nov. 26 in Cobourg, Ont., at the age of 93, also created the first statue to commemorate Canada's servicewomen. Jenny Wren, a bronze piece installed in Cambridge, Ont., in 1972, was commissioned by the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service (known as the Wrens).

Frances Gage watches as her sculpture Discovery of the Hands, on rollers, is hoisted by crane onto a large truck. Globe and Mail archives

Ms. Gage herself had served as a Wren. She tracked messages from Japan for the secret service – a fact that she didn't tell her family for 50 years after the war ended.

Other examples of Ms. Gage's artwork are installed at Fanshawe College and the University of Western Ontario, in London.

The statue Rosamund, from 1968, a reclining female figure in bronze, is located in downtown Toronto, outside an apartment building on Prince Arthur Avenue. A couple of her smaller works are on display in Coburg at the Art Gallery of Northumberland, which owns the small bronze Proud Cat from 1978 and Mindemoya – a sleeping dog – from 1988.

Indeed, many of her smaller works were of animals, which Ms. Gage adored. She always had dogs and cats, often sculpting their likenesses – Mindemoya depicted one of her dogs and another dog, Zeke, featured in a piece she created for a friend.

Ms. Gage showed in numerous group exhibitions, including one in Florence in 1984, Colorado City in 1987, Helsinki in 1990 and London, England, in 1992.

"Frances was a starving artist," Ms. Allman recalls. "She never compromised her art. She chose to live a life on her own, so she could do her art."

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Frances Gage outlines a design on a log. Another one of Gage's sculptures is pictured in the foreground. Globe and Mail archives

Ms. Gage did ponder marriage at one point, according to her 2009 biography, Unlikely Paradise, but her suitor expected her to have children and do her work in the evenings. "Frances wasn't prepared to make that kind of sacrifice," Ms. Allman says.

Instead, she worked, doing so steadily as a professional for more than 50 years. She did not actively promote herself and did not do commercial work. "I prefer to do it my way," she told CBC Television in a 1963 interview. She sculpted for herself and took on commissions.

In that same interview, she admitted that she made her living mostly from teaching and lamented the status of sculpture in the art world and society. "I think it's the last of our arts to be considered in almost every case and in almost every exhibition," she said.

Covering the cost of her materials was a continuing challenge for Ms. Gage.

Frances Gage inserts shims and thin strips of metal into a mould of her sculpture Discovery of the Hands. Globe and Mail archives

Canada did not have a bronze foundry in the 1960s, so having work cast required costly dealings with foundries in New York or Oslo.

She experimented with less expensive materials, using a German cast stone used for gravestones at one point. She and her father, a self-taught engineer, invented an epoxy resin that was half the price of bronze.

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Frances Marie Gage was born in Windsor on Aug. 22, 1924, to Jean (née Collver) and Russell Gage. She had an elder brother, Robert, and sister, Marion, and a younger sister named Barbara.

The family moved to Hamilton, Ont., where on the banks of Chedoke Creek, young Frances would mould clay into sculptures. "Everything you do is so messy!" her mother would complain. But a neighbour thought her work was good and sent a piece away to be fired. The mud wasn't pure, however, so it exploded in the oven.

From a young age, Frances was extremely independent. One day, when she was 8 or 9, she decided to visit her aunt and uncle on their farm in nearby Ancaster, Ont., where they had animals. So she walked there – asking people along the way for directions – and it took her nearly a day.

The family later moved to Oshawa, where Mr. Gage worked for General Motors. At the Oshawa Collegiate and Technical Institute, Frances joined the sketching club under the school's passionate art teacher.

A young Frances Gage.

Her long-time friend and high-school classmate Florence Hertzman recalled the club, which often went on outdoor excursions, as "our pride and joy." Ms. Gage finished high school in 1943, a time when the Canadian war effort was recruiting young women, so she joined the Wrens. She ended up in Quebec, working as a telegraph special operator, monitoring Japanese ships and submarines. She found out after she was discharged that she had been working for the secret service.

After the war, the navy offered to pay postsecondary tuition plus $60 a month for living expenses. She tried to get into veterinary school, but it had a huge wait list. Eventually, she applied to the Ontario College of Art, graduating in 1951. She made wood carvings of animals to help support herself while in school. She met the sculptors Frances Loring and Florence Wyle there, who mentored her. "They had very little but shared everything they had with me," she later told a friend. (Ms. Gage was named the executor of Ms. Loring and Ms. Wyle's wills after they died.)

Ms. Loring and Ms. Wyle then secured funding through a patron for Ms. Gage to attend the Art Students League of New York. She then landed a scholarship from the Royal Society of Canada to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris for two years. In 1956, one of her sculptures won second prize at a show of Canadians in Paris.

Back in Toronto, she took on teaching jobs and, while looking for a place to live and work, found out that Tom Thomson's shack in the Rosedale Ravine was vacant. She rented it in 1957 for $10 a month, using it as a studio for two years – she wanted to live there as well, but the city's public-health department wouldn't let her. While she worked in evenings in the freezing cold cabin, she would hear huge Norway rats moving around outside; her cat Igor kept them from coming inside.

Frances Gage stands outside Tom Thomson’s shack in Toronto in May, 1952. Gage had been using it as a studio.

That same year, Globe and Mail journalist Pearl McCarthy called Ms. Gage "one of Canada's rising artists."

Ms. Gage began selling more of her work: She got $500 from the Stratford Shakespearean Festival for a sculpture of a female torso.

By the 1960s, she was busy with pieces such as Rosamund, four reliefs for the Guild Inn depicting Group of Seven artists, and Discovery of the Hands, a sculpture for Fanshawe College.

Her nieces recall visiting her studio on Birch Street in Toronto, which was cluttered with art, students and animals. Classical music was always playing. (Ms. Gage was also an excellent singer.) She would work every night by the fire, moulding from wax or doing sketches.

In 1971, she bought a large property in the small town of Crosshill, outside Kitchener, Ont., where she eventually built a house. Her nieces recall it as her "happy place," but it was a lot of work to maintain and had limited road access, which became problematic over the years.

"She'd snowshoe in with a dog pulling her purchases up and down the hill for her," Ms. Allman recalls. She moved back to Toronto, then to Roseneath on Rice Lake and then, in 1998, to a house in Cobourg, Ont., where she built a studio in the backyard. She remained there until she went into care in 2012.

Gage demonstrates her clay-application technique on a bust of Owen Hellum in her studio in Cobourg, Ont. in 2009.

As a person, Ms. Gage was extremely forthright. "She'd say it like it was," her niece Nancy Onderwater says. "She had a strong personality. It was just as well, as some of the conditions she found herself in [required] a strong personality," her biographer Alan Butcher says.

The biography, Unlikely Paradise, covers her life in fine detail, including the hard work she put into creating pieces such as Woman, and her struggles over her Crosshill property. Mr. Butcher recalls Ms. Gage telling him that a neighbour opened fire on her with a rifle because he was so offended about a woman living alone.

He also wrote about her troubled relationship with her controlling father and her struggles with alcohol. She quit drinking twice during her lifetime because it was affecting her work and her health.

Sometimes Ms. Gage would surprise people with her unique perspective: She saw the world as an artist. "When she met my husband, she told him he had a very handsome face," Ms. Onderwater says. "To my sister-in-law, she said, 'You have a very exquisite neck.'"

Later in life, when the degenerative condition spinal stenosis put her in a wheelchair, she continued to sculpt, relying on a tray affixed to her chair to hold her moulding wax and the dental instruments she used for her work. Staff in her nursing home would send the small pieces, which were mainly of animals, out to be bronzed and Ms. Gage would give them away. "She often told us that if she could no longer create, she didn't want to live," Ms. Onderwater says. "That was her sole purpose; that's what she loved."

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