Another Saturday, another opening of a Toronto art show.
Except this one was strikingly different. The abstract modernist sculptures, many of them oval shapes elongated by elegant lines, were produced by an artist born in 1919.
At 95, the artist was not only at the show, she was as much the attraction as the art. Patricia Goss walked with a cane through the exhibition of 29 stone carvings she created over the past two years, but, wearing a splash of pink lipstick and an animal-print shirt, she was admitting no weakness.
"I've always been a rebel," declared the amazingly vital sculptor at the end-of-May opening at her Trinity Bellwoods home. "I refuse to give up."
Her three-day show, set up in her garden, attracted gallerists and collectors and was, considering her age, a story in itself. But another story about Mrs. Goss was revealed by others who came to see her work, many of them former dancers she used to teach for 25 years as the art instructor at the National Ballet School (NBS).
From roughly 1965 to 1990, Mrs. Goss, as her former students continue to call her, mentored many of Canada's best dance talents – Frank Augustyn, Karen Kain, Sabina Allemann, Rex Harrington, James Kudelka, Kimberly Glasco, Sonia Rodriguez, John Alleyne, Owen Montague, Martine Lamy, Peter Ottmann, Greta Hodgkinson. The list goes on.
Trained as a watercolourist and fashion illustrator in her native London, Mrs. Goss taught art in the attic of the ballet school. Being at a remove, her classroom was a kind of refuge from the pursuit of perfection taking place in the studios downstairs. Budding dancers came to unwind from the pressures of their intense training and have their confidence restored by a free spirit who taught them that dance wasn't necessarily the end goal. It was a part of the process. The lesson stuck.
"I am amazed that she is still working," says Mr. Augustyn, one of the best dancers Canada has ever produced, now chair of the dance department of Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y. "But it reinforces my belief that creativity and the arts are life-giving and should never be blocked and never be stifled, as they will allow for a fulfilling life."
Founded in 1959 and located at Toronto's Maitland and Jarvis streets, NBS remains one of the few ballet schools in the world that accommodates students, about 150 of them, in residence while providing dance training and an academic education for students in grades 6 through 12. Dance, but particularly ballet, is intensively taught to prepare students for a potential stage career. Those who successfully complete their studies also receive an Ontario Secondary School Diploma.
The school's co-founder, Betty Oliphant, a fellow Brit, originally hired Mrs. Goss to help bridge the academics and the dance training. Whenever NBS performed its annual showcase at what's now the Sony Centre, Ms. Oliphant insisted on having her young dancers' artwork hung on the walls of the theatre for all to see.
"Betty wanted to show that the children were wonderfully creative in dance and all the arts, that they were artistic in more than one field," Mrs. Goss said. But not always.
Karen Kain, artistic director of the National Ballet of Canada, recalls that as hard she tried to be a good art student, her talent lay elsewhere. Mrs. Goss helped her see that.
"I had presented her with a painting I had done," says Ms. Kain, who joined the National Ballet in 1969, soon after graduating from NBS and became one of Canada's most celebrated ballerinas. "I told her I thought it was terrible, and instead of trying to make me feel better, she agreed with me. She helped me tear it up. I think that was a perfect lesson in humility, and it helped me to focus on my true artistic calling."
Other students, such as Neve Campbell, who later became a Hollywood actress, ultimately did not pursue a dance career after leaving NBS. Several became artists themselves, among them multimedia artist Tawny Maclachlan Capon, whose work is exhibited at Toronto's David Kaye Gallery.
"She taught me to listen to myself and to speak from my heart," relays Ms. Maclachlan, who lives on Gabriola Island in British Columbia. "She was just an inspiration – so patient, so kind and so creative herself."
Mrs. Goss inspired her students by giving them the freedom to be themselves and to think broadly about art as being an integral part of life, not just a component of their education.
It was an approach that allowed dancers such as Brenda Little, who twice won the Patricia Goss Art Award before graduating from NBS in 1991, to think of a future outside dance.
"The thing about the ballet school is that it was so focused on dance, and everything else was secondary," says Ms. Little, who danced professionally for 15 years, first with the National Ballet and later with National Theatre Mannheim in Germany and Toronto Dance Theatre, before becoming a graphic artist in 2011. "But she created an environment on the third floor that was like this bubble, removed from it all, and where we could go and dare think that there was something else special in the world other than ballet."
At NBS, the art room was in the attic, at a remove from the dance studios where children as young as 10 spent most of their days learning to master the intricacies of classical dance. Some of the young dancers were overwhelmed by the extraordinary demands placed on their tender bodies, their spirits caving from the pressure.
First Ms. Oliphant, and later her successor, Mavis Staines, brought her students who had been acting out from frustration or who had developed psychological problems arising from feelings of inadequacy or homesickness. Mrs. Goss wasn't a psychologist but she understood children and they felt comfortable in her presence. She often used art as a form of therapy, healing children from the inside out with a paint brush and a tub of sympathy.
"Here was this person who was a teacher and a free-spirit. It was a rare combination," continues Mr. Augustyn who used to break into her classroom on Sundays when she wasn't there just to be able to soak up the atmosphere and feel calm. "I had never met anyone like her before. She wasn't like a teacher at all. She was like one of us."
Her classroom was their refuge. "I remember the good feeling in that upper-loft art room where she seemed to live," says NBS graduate Claudia Moore, artistic director of Moonhorse Dance Theatre, which curates Older and Reckless, a program showcasing the work of mature dance artists.
Sabina Allemann, who attended the school from 1972 to 1980, later becoming a principal dancer with both the National Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet, remembers "the old attic" as "a haven away from the rest of the school" where Mrs. Goss "was always generous with her knowledge and didn't push things on us. She wanted – and helped us – to explore whatever we were interested in."
That ability to let children be themselves, to communicate their inner-most feelings through art, gave the young dancers confidence. It empowered them.
"What she taught me was one of the most important lessons a young artist can have," says Marq Frerichs, a dancer-turned-dance teacher who graduated from NBS in 1985. "I never had felt that I could draw, the connection from minds-eye to hand never seemed to work for me. I was very intimidated by those of my classmates who had this talent. I desperately wished that I could. Miss Goss saw my frustration and she never stopped encouraging me to try to find my vision, not to mimic my peers."
Since retiring from the school in 1990, the widow of British portraitist Geoffrey Goss and the mother of four children (two now deceased) has become something of her own student, teaching herself how to sculpt after having a dream about stone at age 73. A Jungian who believes strongly that dreams are a conduit to the soul, she took heed of the vision, picking up a hammer and chisel late in life to pursue a new career.
Today, Mrs. Goss works in a variety of local and imported stones, among them Carrara marble from Italy and Portland limestone from her native Britain, which she sources herself on trips abroad and then has shipped back to Canada.
The neat-as-a-pin home studio she maintains inside her Trinity Bellwoods home is where she conceives of the shapes she painstakingly draws out of the stone, using a pneumatic drill in addition to her large and veined hands to chip away at the elemental material for up to seven hours at a time.
Mrs. Goss allows that the work has lately become tiring. She blames her advancing age. "I think that if I did not carve, I would die. And so I had better just keep on doing it. It gives me incentive."
Art, she has no doubt, is what keeps her alive, and as she applies herself to the task of creation, defying all sorts of odds, she remains an inspiration to those who still want to learn from her, and follow her example.
"I still find that drawing is very therapeutic," says choreographer Robert Desrosiers, whose sets and costumes, created for Desrosiers Dance Theatre, were directly influenced by Mrs. Goss while he was an NBS student from 1966 to 1972.
Will his teacher, living proof of art's ability to rejuvenate, keep at it?
"I can't tell," she says. "I honestly don't know how much energy I will have. My wish is to continue, but [the great British sculptor] Barbara Hepworth gave up at 70, you know. People don't keep on carving late in life, because it is very, very hard."