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October 24, 2002 Brian Foss: passion for at, penchant for teaching



Brian Foss, with one of his favourite works, The Italian Girl, by Montrealer Emily Coonan. The painting is part of Concordia’s collection.

Photo by Andrew Dobrowolskyj



by Scott McRae

Brian Foss has seen interest in Canadian art come a long way.

“When I started [my studies],” he said, “you could have taken everything that had been published on Canadian art and you could have put it on three shelves.” Almost 20 years later, the art history professor and associate dean works in an office with five bookcases full of publications on Canadian art.

In the last three decades, Canadian academics and museum personnel realized what a tremendous treasure they had been sitting on and finally began to explore it. Foss began his own exploration while completing his master’s at Concordia in the 1980s, an exploration that has since developed into a contagious appreciation for the depth and breadth of Canadian art. When discussing it, his face flushes, his tone intensifies and it’s impossible to ignore his zeal.

It is this passionate, almost embarrassed, enthusiasm that earned Foss this year’s teaching excellence award for full-time faculty from the Faculty of Fine Arts that will be presented to him June 13 at convocation.

“I was unbelievably pleased,” he said. “Of the stuff you have to do at a university — teaching, research, and administration — teaching is what I love.”

This penchant for teaching surprised him. “I’m not an outgoing person,” he confessed. “I’m notorious at parties for finding the bathroom and hiding in it. But put me in front of a group of people and I become a totally different person. I bounce. I tell naughty stories. I tell them what my mother thinks of the painting.

“Occasionally, I find myself standing in front of a painting saying, ‘Isn’t this beautiful?’ It’s not terribly academic, but it’s important that people not just analyze art, but admire it.”

Foss had this epiphany in the mid-1960s. At the time, there was catastrophic flooding in Florence and National Geographic ran a story showing volunteers carrying paintings out over their heads, waist deep in water. “It was then that I realized paintings are objects, that they can be destroyed, and that they’re precious,” he said.

Only 11 years old at the time, Foss became interested in art, a passion which led him into art history. He studied art history for 15 years out of love for the subject matter, and it was not until he neared the end of his PhD that he began seriously to consider how he could apply his research to the real world. “In retrospect,” he admitted, “it seems naive.”

Recently, practical matters have been an everyday concern for Foss.

He accepted the position of associate dean in January 2002 and has since had a crash course in the administration and inner workings of large institutions. “Concordia may be about ‘real education for the real world,’” he said, “but until taking the job, I didn’t know much about the real world.”

This knowledge has come at a cost (the job of associate dean is a 40-hour-a-week job), and he has had to cut back his teaching and his research, although he recently began work as the co-investigator in a project comparing Canadian and American landscape painting.

Though he is enjoying his tenure as associate dean, Foss is excited about returning to full-time teaching. “The quality of my teaching justifies my existence here,” he said. “People come out of my classes excited about art.”

Sometimes it takes a while. Foss also teaches Roman art, a subject which he can only display through slides and which, like Canadian art, has an undeserved reputation for dullness. Students often can’t understand why either makes him bounce up and down with excitement, though most understand over time.

Foss receives many letters from former students, several of these postcards from Italy, often with a simple message: “I see what you mean.”